The son of Miami Beach heiress Gail Posner just learned that she left her mansion and millions to her pooches and servants, not to him. And the ex-wife and former girlfriend and manager of actor Gary Coleman are fighting over his wills (including a hand-written amendment). To make sure your wishes are honored, and to help your family avoid feeling confused and hurt, take a few easy steps now:
Write (or rewrite) a will. A good rule of thumb: revise it once a decade. To find an attorney, check with your local or state bar association or the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.
Tell family members. "If you get it out on the table now and get people to vent or disagree or whatever, it tends to diffuse problems later on," says lawyer Charles Sabatino, director of the American Bar Association's Commission on Law and Aging. "Later on they can't come back and say, 'This was done behind closed doors.' Being transparent will help avoid the challenges and disputes later on."
Chose a substitute decision maker. Pick someone you trust to be your agent with "durable power of attorney."
Create an advanced directive for healthcare decisions. Write a living will and name a person (and a back-up person) who could choose for you if you become disabled. "These days estate planning is more planning for your lifetime needs than your after-death disposition," says Sabatino. (For help, check the ABA's online toolkit). Sabatino recommends revising this directive after one of the five D's—a new decade of your life, a death in your family, a divorce, a diagnosis of significance or a decline in your condition. Who handles healthcare decisions doesn't dictate who gets your money. "[But] it may change how you divide property," says Sabatino. "If Susy's the one who's going to carry the burden of taking care of you, maybe Susy ought to be the one to get the house."
Come up with clear instructions. Consider leaving a document—labeled "to be opened in the event of my death"—in a safe place, known to your attorney and to reliable adults in your family, says child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, author of Raising Kids with Character. This letter would summarize where the will is and who the lawyer is—and would "reaffirm your love for your children," she says. To avoid future disagreements, you could also specify your preferred funeral arrangements—a religious ceremony, a cremation, a fancy casket.
Make copies of your will. Keep the original in a safe place, such as your lawyer's office or with the clerk of court if your local city or county provides that service. (Family members may run into trouble getting permission to open your safe deposit box, says Sabatino.) Keep a duplicate in your home, and give one to your administrator or your designated agent with power of attorney. "Don't get too liberal with copies because every time you change something, you've got a new problem," says Sabatino. "You don't want to generate confusion."
Talk to your children. Discussing your death may make kids under 10 too anxious, says Berger. But a brief, straightforward chat with tweens and teens is a good idea. Reassure them that you are healthy and unlikely to die now but that it's wise to come up with a back-up plan. For example, you might tell them that they would live with their favorite aunt. Give kids the chance to ask questions—but take the hint if they want to move on to a new topic.
For stories about aging parents, read: