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Beyond estate planning: Helping survivors move forward with post-mortem planning

Beyond estate planning: Helping survivors move forward with post-mortem planning

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:

  1. 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.[1] 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.


[1] Forbes, “Why the wealthy do not implement their estate plans,” March 22, 2016

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Wall Street has gone wild! Is it finally time to change your investment strategy?

Wall Street has gone wild! Is it finally time to change your investment strategy?

It’s a strange time for investors.

Consider this: Just last week Gerry, a 65-year-old recent retiree, asked me if she should take on more risk in her portfolio. “The market is doing so well,” she said. “I feel like I’m missing out on all that growth.” My answer was simple. “No!” I explained that her strategy had been very carefully built to support her long-term financial goals—not just to grow her invested funds. It was an important conversation, and wow, is it a good thing she has an advisor to talk her out of emotional decision-making! Just imagine if she’d decided to gamble with her assets and take on more risk just a few days ahead of Monday’s volatility.

Of course, in the face of this week’s rather wild ride in the stock market, you may be asking yourself the opposite question: “Have I taken on too much risk?” My answer to you is the same today as it was for Gerry just one week ago. No! That is, of course, if you have a well-constructed financial plan already in place.

Whether the market is flying high or taunting your emotions with new lows and some bumpy volatility, here are four things every investor should keep in mind:

  1. Investing is not a stand-alone activity.  When the stock market is in the news (which it almost always is), it’s easy to forget that investing is just one piece of your overall financial life. A good financial advisor will work with you to look at that and everything else. What are your goals? What does your personal balance sheet look like? If you haven’t already, how soon do you plan to retire? How long can your existing portfolio provide a reasonable income? How much debt do you have? Do you have a sufficient emergency fund? The answers to these questions determine how much risk you can afford to take when investing. When a new client tells me she only wants to talk about investments and not the rest of her financial life, I know we have some important work to do! (Learn more about focusing on your financial big picture in my blog, Cold, hard cash! (Are you paying attention?).
  2. A balanced portfolio will rarely perform as well as the DJIA—or as poorly.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) is an average comprised of just 30 stocks out of a universe of thousands. In contrast, your portfolio includes a diverse menu of different asset types that each play a particular role within your portfolio. Stocks address your need for growth. Bonds address your need for stable income. Cash addresses your need for liquidity. How those assets are balanced—or allocated—in your portfolio depends on how long it will have to serve as your retirement paycheck, how much you’ll have to draw each month to sustain your lifestyle, how many years your assets have to grow, your legacy goals, and more. If your IRA goes down as stocks go up, don’t despair. Rest assured that your portfolio is balanced and diversified to meet your needs.
  3. Your best investment in any market is to pay off debt.  Debt is a huge problem in the US. According to this study by WalletHub, the average indebted household held $8,600 in outstanding credit card debt in 2017, and total household debt broke a new record of just under $13 Trillion.[1] If your portfolio is what makes your financial life secure, debt is what does the opposite. While “good debt” such as a home mortgage, student loans, and business loans generate benefits over time, “bad debt” poses serious risk to your financial health. Credit cards, auto loans, and other revolving debt reduce your income, add no value to your wealth, and force you to pay more every month for an item that is losing value. If you are carrying bad debt, use a debtsnowball to reduce and eliminate the debt you have today and avoid taking on more debt in the future. (For more on how debt can impact your future, read my blog There’s no such thing as an unexpected expense.)
  4. Your goal is to make work optional and sleep peacefully at night—not make as much money as possible.  It’s so easy to forget the endgame. We see the stock market hitting record highs or taking record dives, and it distracts us from the real goal of financial planning. Ultimately, everyone wants to have enough assets to support themselves and their family comfortably for the rest of their lives. While the definition of “enough” varies widely (check out John C. Bogle’s fantastic book, Enough: True Measures of Money, Business, and Life, for more on that important topic), a comprehensive financial/life plan can remove money stress by giving you the confidence that work will be optional someday and you can sleep peacefully knowing that your finances are secure today and tomorrow—independent of market volatility.

I have a colleague who likes to joke that he has the gift of “20/20 hindsight.” Don’t we all? It’s so easy to say, “I knew it all along!” Knew that the market was overvalued. Knew that you should have held on to Apple stock. Knew that your friend’s new boyfriend was a creep. The truth is you didn’t know it all along; you only feel as though you did now that the outcome is in plain sight.

No one—not even Warren Buffett—knows which way the stock market will go tomorrow. One thing we can anticipate is that we may have returned to more “normal” volatility. After years of historically low volatility and record highs, it may feel a bit unfamiliar, but with a solid plan in place, you can trust that you are safe. If you’re not certain you have a smart plan that’s working toward your long-term goals, let’s chat. As always, we’re here to help.

[1]The Center for Center for Microeconomic Data, Q3 2017

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For your finances, getting organized can be the greatest challenge

Photo credit: Nels HighbergIt’s a common nightmare: You walk into a classroom to take a test, sit down at the desk, and when you look down at the paper in front of you, you have absolutely no clue what you’re seeing. The topic. The material. Nothing. You panic…before waking up in a cold sweat.

Over a year ago, Susan called me asking for financial help. “The closer we get to retirement, the more we argue about money,” said the voice on the phone. “I’m scared. I don’t want to end up as a bag lady!” We made an appointment for Susan and her husband to some into the office for an initial meeting, and I asked her to bring their financial statements along to start the conversation. It seemed like we were off to a good start.

Then the day of the meeting arrived. My phone rang at 8:00 a.m. and Susan’s voice was even more desperate than before. “I think we have to cancel.” She sounded like she was almost in tears. “I’ve been trying to pull stuff together all week, and I can’t find what you need. I don’t know where to start.” I felt terrible. I realized I’d given Susan an assignment she was wholly unprepared to complete. She was living the nightmare.

When it comes to financial planning, the challenge of getting organized is as common as nightmares themselves. And unfortunately, it keeps people who need help as far away from a financial advisor as they can get. If you’re in the same boat as Susan, you might be thinking: “If I can’t even organize my finances, how can I ever hand it over to an advisor?” Or worse: “Any advisor will think I’m completely incompetent if they see what a mess I’m in.” So the fear of not being able to do it “right” and the fear of being judged stands in the way of getting help. Taking that first step can feel like climbing Mount Everest (including the lack of oxygen!), but knowing these facts can help:

Your finances are complicated.
You may feel they shouldn’t be, but they are. And unless you’re a financial planner yourself, you may not even know what all the pieces of the puzzle are—much less where they are.ideally in a concise, single-page overview) but you also don’t have to worry about the unknown any longer.

Procrastination is a killer.
As complex as your finances may feel today, the longer you wait to get help, the more complicated and out of control they’re likely to become. Don’t wait to clean out your files, pay off your debt, or put money in the bank before getting help. Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer stopped doing his homework was because: “The universe is expanding!...and someday it will break apart and that will be the end of everything…so what’s the point?!”And while I believe there is a point, he’s right: your universe is expanding. Next year you’ll have more assets (hopefully), more financial needs, and more complexity. Ten years from now, your challenges will be that much greater. Don’t procrastinate. Time is of the essence!

The older you are, the more help you may need.
Yes, finances often get more complicated with age, but there’s a bigger issue that comes with getting older. Unfortunately, the ability to understand and analyze your finances decreases with age. Even if you’ve always managed your finances in the past, as you (or your spouse) age, the task will inevitably become more challenging, and mistakes and misjudgments can happen more and more. It’s never easy to recognize changes in your abilities, but if managing your finances is getting harder, it’s time to ask for help.

There are only three prerequisites. (Hint: Being organized isn’t one of them!)
The only requirements for working with a financial advisor are 1) the desire to improve your financial health, 2) a basic understanding of how a financial advisor can help, and 3) a willingness to pay for that help. An advisor will help you make sense of your finances and then work with you to create a plan to help build your wealth and protect your assets in the future.

When Susan called that morning, it wasn’t difficult to calm her fears. “If you ask for directions to my office, what do you think my first question will be?” I asked. Without hesitation, she replied, “Where are you coming from?” Exactly. I assured her that to help her and her husband move forward, all I needed to know was where they were now. “Just bring what you have, and we’ll take it from there.” I could hear her sigh of relief. She didn’t have to live the nightmare after all.

Susan and her husband showed up that morning with three bulging boxes of files. But we didn’t start by diving in right away. Instead, we talked about the even more important and much more simple aspects of their financial lives: their ages and years until retirement, their children, their living situation, and their estimated savings. We discussed their goals for retirement, and what each of them felt would truly make them feel at peace financially. It was just the first step in the right direction.

Are you ready to take the first step toward a more solid financial future? Let’s schedule a time to meet. Bring your file boxes if you’d like, but the only thing you need to know for certain is that you need—and want—help.

Photo credit: Nels Highberg
Illustration credit: Carl Richards

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Lessons from the green

b2ap3_thumbnail_Lauren_Klein_golf_lessons.jpgThis past weekend I decided to give myself a treat and attend three full days of golf school. A class called “The Scoring Game” was being offered locally at the Strawberry Farms Golf Club, so there would be no hotel or travel costs, and my short game is decidedly my weak point. So I signed up and treated it like a mini-vacation. My expectation was simple: I would walk in on Friday and present my faulty game—warts and all—and walk out Sunday with a new and improved short game that would make me the envy of all my golf buddies. Yes, I was looking for a silver bullet.

If you’ve never played golf, the short game consists of the strokes taken within about 100 yards of the green. This is not the high flying balls soaring down the fairway, but the very precise and tactical strokes, typically chips and putts, that get the ball from near the green to in the hole. And yes, it’s how the game is won.

The class consisted of the instructor and four students. A 15-year-old girl who is on track to be a golf pro (we should never have been on the same golf course!); a lighting designer by day/golf fanatic by every other minute (this man had his own golf pro and was very serious about the game); and one man I could actually relate to who was a franchise business owner and a basic, weekend player who just wanted to improve his game. I hoped his expectations matched my own and we would both walk away with a “short game in a box.”

Here’s how I pictured the weekend would play out: the instructor would watch me play, identify what I was doing wrong, tell me what to do—including specific strokes that would dramatically improve my game—and applaud when my game was “fixed.” What I experienced was far from that dreamy reality. Yes, he watched me play. And play. And play. The 15-year-old didn’t bat an eye when the instructor told her to hit another 20 balls. She was balanced, flexible, and tireless. Then there was me. When he told me to hit another bucket of balls, I had to stifle the moan that escaped from my mouth. Ugh. I quickly realized my level of fitness wasn’t adequate and that this was going to be a lot more physically and mentally strenuous than I anticipated. (Some vacation!) The instructor did tell me what to do: “Twist your body to the right.” “Turn your shoulder this way.” “Close your club.” He also taught us how to use feedback devices, not just his own words, to help improve our games. Rather than just swinging and seeing where the ball would land, he told us to aim for a certain point and gauge our accuracy in order to strive for precision. He helped us figure out the best club to use for the situation, and how to play differently to handle an uphill lie or a downhill lie. And while his guidance and feedback were valuable, I realized that’s all he could really offer. It was up to me to practice, again and again and again, and to be willing to do it wrong in order to get it right.

As I was reflecting on the weekend on Sunday night (and examining my bruised wrist, lamenting my sore muscles, and basking in some actual down time!), I realized that, as usual, golf was a perfect analogy for life. Our job is to work through our challenges and strive for continuous improvements…at our own pace.

The same, of course, is true when it comes to financial planning. My job as a financial advisor is to coach each client toward success. First, we identify the starting point—where the ball lies at this one moment. What is your financial situation today—warts and all. Next, we work together to determine where you want (or need) to be in 5, 10, 20, or 30 years. Just as a golfer uses different clubs and techniques to manage different situations, my job as a coach is to recommend which tools to use when and how to prepare for changes in the landscape. A financial misstep is no different than a flubbed shot. It may take some correction, but it doesn’t mean you’ve lost the game. And while you can’t predict what’s around the corner—whether it’s a sand trap or a market correction—you can be well prepared for whatever comes next. That’s part of the game. And just like in golf, it’s my job to help you understand why a certain strategy may work—or not—and create clear feedback to help you continue to make the best possible choices in the future.

No matter where your finances are today, strategy, practice, and feedback are all part of getting you where you want to be in the future. But unlike my weekend, let’s focus on the long game this time. That’s where the winning takes place in this game.

Feel like your finances aren’t quite on par? Let’s schedule a time to talk about how we can get you back on track for a long-term win.

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Finding common ground and a path to forgiveness

b2ap3_thumbnail_Young_Sok_Yun.jpgOn Sunday evening, the Jewish community celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. If you’re not familiar with the holiday, there’s much more to it than a typical New Years Eve. There’s no ball dropping on Times Square, and while it is a celebration, the focus is on family and faith and renewal for the coming year. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, begins at sunset next Tuesday, and the days in between—The Days of Awe—are a time of reflection and forgiveness with the hope of starting fresh for the coming year.

As you can imagine, these holidays have me thinking a lot about forgiveness.

In my work as a financial advisor, I do quite a bit of mediation with couples (I’m trained in mediation as well as financial planning), and in that process I witness a lot of challenges as couples work together to overcome money issues that are causing conflict in their lives. In almost every instance—whether I’m working with a couple alone or along with their extended family—I see amazing shifts take place as individuals face their conflicts, seek common ground, and find new ways to communicate more effectively with each other.

Tamara and Chris have been clients of mine for years. After working with them to mediate some financial issues over a decade ago, Tamara’s favorite saying was, “We don’t fight about money anymore…we just call Lauren!” Unfortunately, they had some pretty big financial hits recently: Chris was forced to take an unexpected early retirement, and Tamara’s business fell on tough times. Without much warning, they had to completely rethink their financial future—which included making some major decisions about how to decrease their monthly expenses.

At first, they both fell into the old trap of the blame game. “Chris promised me we would stay in our home through retirement,” cried Tamara. “I can’t believe we’re in this situation at this point in our lives.” Then Chris chimed in, saying that if Tamara had taken better marketing advice, her business would not have failed. They were angry at each other for the situation they were in, but it was easy to see that their anger was rooted in fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of change. And fear of being judged by each other. They weren’t exactly fighting about money, but they clearly weren’t in harmony either.

To help get them there, I asked them each to share their vision of the future—regardless of their financial situation. As they talked, we found that neither of them wanted to have to rebuild a career at this point in their lives, so they were both ready to retire. Next, we talked about what retirement looked like to each of them. Family and outdoor activities made the top of the list. And they both saw themselves walking together a lot—in nature, to the market, to dinner—all without getting in a car. In very little time, they had found some common ground, and the decisions that had felt so overwhelming were suddenly so much easier. By the time they left my office (with homework!), I could tell they had begun to paint a joint vision of what their new life would be like together. Harmony was on its way.

Tamara and Chris aren’t alone. So often in families, fear has a knack for causing conflict, even if it seems everyone is fighting over money. We all know stories about families torn apart after a loved one dies because of fights over belongings and money. And just like Tamara and Chris, it seems much of the upset—and the resulting need for forgiveness!—is often caused not by need, (Does Linda really need her grandmother’s candlesticks? Does Jerry really need his father’s car?) but by an emotional reaction to what’s happening, including sadness, fear, guilt, and more.

The legal battle over Robin Williams’ estate is a perfect example. Robin’s death was unexpected, and while he had done some pretty detailed estate planning, it wasn’t detailed enough to prevent a sad fight between his wife of three years and his adult children. Many blame the lawyers for the lack of clarity, but as with most disagreements, I can’t help but wonder if things would have been different if he had just communicated better when it came to his wishes. Not in legal documents, but with his wife and adult children. They’re still in mediation today. When all is said and done, they may all need to ask for—and offer—forgiveness.

Whether disagreements are about money, relationships, rethinking retirement, or myriad other issues, finding common ground and communicating clearly can not only help dissolve issues, but can often help sidestep conflict in the first place. Jewish or not, the “Days of Awe” are a great time to reflect on the fences in your life that may need mending. Perhaps take that step and ask someone for forgiveness. Or better yet, actively seek some common ground and communicate with your loved ones to prepare for your own fresh start. I know that’s my goal for the week.

No matter what your faith, I wish you a Happy New Year 5776 filled with peace, health, happiness, and prosperity. L’shanah Tovah!

Has finding common ground and communicating with your family made a difference in your own life? Please email me. I’d love to hear your story!


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All written content on this site is for information purposes only. Opinions expressed herein are solely those of Lauren S. Klein, President, Klein Financial Advisors, Inc. Material presented is believed to be from reliable sources and we make no representations as to its accuracy or completeness. Read More >