When I was in my fifties, my husband, Ed, died. Though he had been disabled for more than a decade following a debilitating stroke, nothing prepared me for the days, weeks, and months that followed. Saying I was in a complete haze would be an understatement. We had a carefully designed estate plan in place, but I found myself at a loss when it came time to implement that plan or to do what is called “post-mortem planning.” After I finally completed the daunting process, I promised myself that not only would I find a way to make this process easier for my children, but that I would do what I could to help ease the path forward for clients after a loss.
If you’re like most people, you’ve never taken a moment to think about what happens after disability, the first death, or the death of the survivor. You’ve checked the estate plan box on your to-do list and tucked the giant binder away. Operationalizing the plan would be someone else’s problem, someday, “if anything ever happens to me.” (If you don’t have an estate plan, or if it’s been in set-it-and-forget-it mode for years, jump straight to my blog posts on the topic here!) However, (and trust me on this!) taking time now to consider the actual implementation of that plan will make it much easier to move forward when the time comes—for widows, children, and other heirs in the years to come. Start today with these three basic steps:
Get clarity about what will happen after your spouse dies.
Let’s face it: estate plans are complex documents. Because it’s your attorney’s job to do everything they can to protect your estate, your plan will inevitably be filled with a jumble of incomprehensible legal terms (at least to anyone who isn’t schooled in the language of estate planning). That level of technical precision may be perfect from a legal perspective, but it can cause significant challenges for the person the plan is designed to serve: you. Even attorneys themselves recognize the issue. In a recent survey, many said that a large majority of the plans they prepared were never fully implemented. Why? According to the attorneys, their clients either didn’t understand the plan, or they didn’t understand what they needed to do next—either immediately after leaving the attorney’s office or at the time of death.
To avoid that mistake, be sure you understand what your post-mortem action items are—both when the documents are signed and when it’s time to implement your plan. Remember that it’s your attorney’s job to draft documents; it’s your job to read and understand them. If it’s helpful, illustrate the flow of funds and each recipient so that your estate plan is clear to you. Clarity and confidence go hand in hand.
Hire your professional ‘A-Team.'
I recommend that every survivor have an A-team—a group of people who each play a critical role in helping you stand on your own. (Read more on this in my blog post When all feels lost, it’s time to find your A-team.) Your Estate Planning Attorney plays a critical role on that team, as does a Trust & Probate Attorney (though in some cases they are one and the same). Some people update their estate plan every 2 to 5 years, but others can go 10 years or more and have told me they think the person who created the plan is retired or dead. Make sure the executor and successor trustee knows your team. In my experience, when the survivors have the same attorney as the decedent, that makes the process even easier in the years to come.
Make sure your financial advisor has a seat at the table.
One of the best things you can do to prepare for the implementation of your estate plan is to be sure your entire A-team is working in concert toward your success. As a financial advisor, I see my role as much more than holding my client’s hand and supporting her through every step of the “widow’s checklist.” The most successful transitions I’ve witnessed are when my client and I can sit down with her attorney(s), her CPA, and her adult children to walk through the plan together and create a unified plan for implementation. I make sure no one leaves the room with questions, and everyone knows what needs to be done and when to do it. It’s my own recipe for success.
Working with your financial advisor to create a detailed post-mortem plan is the key to properly implementing your estate plan so you can start moving forward again after losing your spouse or parent. Of course, doing nothing is always the easiest thing to do, but the problems that come with that lack of action don’t age well. Neglecting to plan now can result in orphaned accounts (accounts that have no clear beneficiary and are not claimed by the decedent's heirs), high tax payments, and an even bigger financial mess to clean up later on. Whatever you do, don’t procrastinate. Get clarity, get help, and work with your A-team to dot the i’s, cross the t’s, and move forward with your life.
 Forbes, “Why the wealthy do not implement their estate plans,” March 22, 2016