Complete Your Final Documents

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Spoiler alert! No one makes it off planet Earth alive. To make this time easier for your loved ones left behind, get your final documents in order.

Randy L. Zeigler, certified financial planner and private wealth adviser with Ameriprise Financial Services, LLC in Oswego, said that financial documents should include a detailed will, health care proxy, durable power of attorney and sometimes living will documents.

“The documents are important, but the time spent with the attorney discussing one’s wishes is even more important to be sure that the lawyer truly understands your wishes and is able to then translate those wishes into appropriate and complete legal instruments,” he added.

He has found that most people focus on the documents and tend to neglect the details of their wishes for distributing their estate and choosing their executor, power of attorney and other designations. Zeigler also said that some attorneys overuse trusts where a solid will may do.

Establishing these documents can help family members “so no one has to wonder what you want; it’s written right there and the family doesn’t have to make decisions,” said Rob Rolfe, financial adviser at Harmony Financial Services in Oswego.

Rolfe said that it’s also important to make sure the will and other documents are stored correctly such as in a home safe and deposited with an attorney instead of a safe deposit box at the bank.

“Put things on a ZIP drive and give it to the kids and lock it in a box at home,” said Rolfe. “Let them know where it is and where the key is. The odds are, you’ll get incapacitated.”

In addition to a will or trust — documents stating where your money will go — you’ll need documents related to who will make important decisions should you become incapacitated. These are the healthcare proxy and the power of attorney designations.

The power of attorney documentation designates someone to handle your financial affairs.

“You need a power of attorney as you may become incapacitated and not be able to pay property taxes or the National Grid bill,” Rolfe said. “It’s a good idea to have a family meeting where you invite your out-of-town kids to come online or the in town kids to come into a meeting to learn the responsibilities for an executor and power of attorney. You can talk about what’s important to you.”

The persons you select for the healthcare proxy and power of attorney may be your spouse, an adult child, other relative, trusted friend or an attorney or other professional. Select and designate back-ups also.

“The power of attorney is one of the most important decisions that you may make regarding your finances because you are entrusting your resources to that individual,” said Vicki Brackens, chartered financial consultant, financial planner and president at Brackens Financial Solutions Network in Syracuse.

She advises considering the choice based upon a few years’ review and consideration and not making an impulsive choice to ensure the person has your best interest at heart.

The healthcare proxy is a person you choose who will make healthcare decisions if you are unconscious or otherwise lack the ability to decide what steps to take in your healthcare, based upon your wishes. The healthcare proxy and the person acting as power of attorney do not need to be the same person.

“You know your children; you know what they’re capable of,” Brackens said. “You need to make a choice that’s logical, not emotional. Follow your head. Make sure everyone knows where the paperwork is.”

Your healthcare providers should have copies in your file and the person named should also have a copy.

Periodically, reexamine the documents and their designations to see if they still work. The son who now lives nearby may make a better healthcare proxy than the daughter who moved 1,000 miles away last spring.

“Updating your plan is critically important as life changes,” Brackens said.

Beneficiaries may change, as an adult child or grandchild experiences divorce or develops a gambling problem you don’t wish to finance.

Stephen Wisniewski, chartered retirement plans specialist and financial adviser with Equitable Advisors in Syracuse, said that delaying these decisions “is one of the biggest mistake people can make. We all feel healthy, until one day we don’t. When that day comes, it may be too late to spring into action and complete overdue financial documents. It’s not usually a free process to get these documents drafted and we certainly respect being conscientious with our money. But sometimes it is much more expensive to have not gotten these done, and it can be a fine line between too early and too late. Financial advisers are advocates for addressing these documents early and while in great health.”

Instead of viewing the planning as morbid, Wisniewski sees final planning as “one of the biggest gifts a parent can give to their children and grandchildren.”