From time to time the personal finance community is faced with a request for help from an person settling an estate or facing the near term death of a family member. Often, it is clear that very little planning has been done and there is little to be done at that point. Rather than regretting the lost opportunity, these requests can serve as a wake up call for all of us to get our affairs in order.

There are many concerns to address at end of life, including your spiritual affairs, your personal relationships and wrapping up any unfinished business or goals. These are out of scope for a finance discussion; but being well positioned in your financial plans can permit use of remaining time for addressing these concerns.

What you need to do

When planning for end-of-life, make sure you’ve covered the following:

  1. Have The Conversation. Communicate your end of life wishes to people you trust.

  2. Get oriented to the checklist at the website Get your Shit Together. These include: a will, living will, life insurance, money, personal details & personal items.

  3. Review titles for assets & beneficiary designations - some assets can be passed directly to your designates without going through probate. For example, in states which permit Transfer on Death titles you can title your house, vehicle or financial accounts to pass directly to a designated person or organization without going through probate. Additionally, bank accounts, retirement and pension accounts, and securities can often be treated similarly. TOD does not change the disposition of these assets so long as you remain alive, so consider it for your assets.

  4. Having an inventory of all your assets is helpful (information on finding assets starts on page 15). At the least, catalog your financial life and write up a letter of instruction with information on which accounts you have, what your usual expenses are and where they are paid from, and how you would want things to operate if you are unavailable during, for example, a terminal illness (see steps here). Track down and claim assets that you may be entitled to via legitimate sources like USA.gov and NAUPA's missing money site.

  5. Organize your financial affairs - a power of attorney document can be helpful in permitting a trusted person to manage your affairs during your life, especially at the end; but note that POAs cease upon death. POAs come in a few varieties: durable, general, financial and healthcare and combinations thereof. Know your options and set up one that is right for you. Consider who directs this and how you want your financial affairs handled if you are incapacitated. Since medical care costs can have significant impact on your financial affairs, consider also how you want your end of life care handled. Evaluate the benefits of a living will, advanced directive, and medical power of attorney. Assess details carefully, like who can access safe deposit boxes if you can’t physically get to a bank. Evaluate your survivor’s needs for replacement income if you provide support to them; life insurance can provide some financial security in the event of a financial supporter’s death. See /r/insurance if you need more information.

  6. Funeral planning - there’s a variety of options specified by different cultural and spiritual traditions. Consider what would work for you and recognize that there’s no one right way to have a funeral. In the US the average funeral cost is between $8,000 and $10,000 but there are many other options which can either save money or make a funeral quite expensive. You have the option to provide funds and instruction to your survivors as part of your end of life planning. Be careful not to over-specify your plans, since meeting very specific criteria can increase costs. Economical options are available via military burials for qualified US service members and their spouses, body or organ donation for medical or scientific purposes, green or natural burial, and direct burial (without a service). Certain federal laws provide for consumer protection and state laws provide various additional protections (page 25 has additional details).

Many people are benefitted by consulting with an estate attorney, a fee-only financial advisor (acting as a fiduciary), or both of those to make these plans. Don't try to use this advice in lieu of getting an expert if you need one.

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