Jean Chatzky: End-of-life planning tips

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What happens if something happens to you? If you have people depending on you (and your income), then you’ve done your job only if you’ve put a protection plan in place.

If you read my list and thought, “check, yup, did that, I’m good” — terrific. I have just one last question for you: Does anyone in your life know how to follow that plan? This last but important step doesn’t fall into the arena of either insurance or estate planning, and as a result, it’s often left undone.

Nearly 900 widows and widowers were surveyed in a just-released study done by GfK and sponsored by New York Life. When asked what they wished they’d done differently, many indicated they were operating in the weeds. Some 30 percent of women said they wished they had detailed discussions about what might happen financially and otherwise if one of them passed; 18 percent of women said they wished they had organized all of their important papers in a central location.

May I suggest a simple document called “A Letter of Instruction and Suggestion”? I can’t take credit for the title — my stepfather made it up. But it’s exactly what it sounds like: A document that lists who the important advisers are (lawyers, accountants, etc.) and how to reach them, as well as where all the bank and brokerage accounts are, information about insurance policies, retirement plans, stocks and — very important these days — information about how to access these things online.

“I always tell my clients they should leave a (document like this,)” says Leanna Hamill, an estate planning attorney in Hingham, Massachusetts. “It has to be consolidated — all in one place — so that if something happens, your kids (or spouse) aren’t trying to search all over the house.”

If you don’t put together a document like this, there is a risk that assets and insurance policies — particularly from long ago — will go undiscovered.

“I run across people whose kids don’t know they had stocks or life insurance policies from 30 years ago,” she says, noting that even if they do know about them, they often don’t know how to access them.

In addition to the nuts and bolts, a letter of instruction and suggestion is a nice place to deal with things like family heirlooms, Hamill explains. There may be, for example, pieces of jewelry or china or paintings that don’t look particularly valuable but actually are. “Make sure someone knows about that so they’re not selling them at a yard sale,” she says.

It can be a fine place to include the sort of minutiae about, say, your house, that your spouse either has never taken the time to learn about or doesn’t seem able to remember.

“I’ve had people put in things like where the water shut-off is at the house or where is the septic tank in the yard,” she notes. “Anything where if you’re not around to say it you want to be sure someone will know.”

Finally, it’s an appropriate place to deal with your last wishes — for yourself and for the people you want to read the letter. If you have specific guidelines for how you’d like your funeral service planned, who you want to speak or what music you want played, this is a perfect place to write that down.

And if you have hopes or dreams for your loved ones that you’d like to memorialize — rather than just money or assets you want to pass on — put pen to paper on that, too.

“I’ve had some people who have left letters about how much they loved their family — emotional things that they’re not comfortable talking about,” Hamill says.

If it sounds as if there’s a lot of leeway in a document like this, there is. “Leaving a letter to people can be really nice,” Hamill says. It can also be a lifesaver.

For more on wills, trusts and estates, see Bankrate’s Senior Living section.