Get Your Financial Affairs in Order

Take the following steps to help your family should you die or become incapacitated.

1. Make a financial power of attorney.
With a durable power of attorney for finances,you can give a trusted person broad authority to handle your finances if you become incapacitated and unable to handle your own affairs. This person is called your agent or attorney-in-fact (but doesn't have to be an attorney). For more information, seeDurable Financial Power of Attorney: How it Works.

2. Protect your children's property.
You should name either a property guardian, custodian, or trustee to manage the money and property you leave to your minor children. (This can be the same person as the personal guardian you name in your will). For more information, seeLeaving an Inheritance for Children.

3. Consider life insurance.
If you have young children or own a house, or you may owe significant debts or estate taxes when you die, life insurance may be a good idea. For more information, seeDo I Need Life Insurance?andUsing Life Insurance to Provide for Your Children.

4. Name pay-on-death beneficiaries.
Naming a beneficiary on a form provided by your bank or retirement plan administrator -- not in your will or trust --makes the account automatically "payable on death" to your beneficiary and allows the funds to skip the probate process. Likewise, in almost all states, you can register your stocks, bonds, or brokerage accounts in this manner. In a few states, you can transfer your vehicles this way, too. For more information, seeHow to Avoid Probate.

5. Avoid estate taxes.
Have you considered the possibility that your heirs may have to pay estate or inheritance taxes? Unless you are wealthy, you probably won't need to worry about federal estate taxes because every person can leave up to $5 million tax-free. (And together, spouses can leave up to $10 million.) However, a handful of states also imposes estate or inheritance taxes, and if you live in one of those states, you may want to plan to reduce your tax liability. For more information, seeEstate and Gift Tax FAQ.

6. Protect your business.
If you're the sole owner of a business, you should have a succession plan. If you own a business with others, you should have a buy-sell agreement. For more information, seePlan Ahead for Changes in Partnership Ownership.

7. Cover funeral expenses.
Rather than a funeral prepayment plan, which may be unreliable, you can set up a Totten trust with your bank and deposit funds into it to pay for your funeral and other final arrangements. For more information,see The Prepaid Funeral and its Perils.

8. Store your documents.
Have you stored your important information in a place where your attorney-in-fact or your executor can find it? Your attorney-in-fact and/or your executor (the person you choose in your will to administer your property after you die) may need access to the following documents:

  • will
  • trusts
  • insurance policies
  • real estate deeds
  • certificates for stocks, bonds, annuities
  • information on bank accounts, mutual funds, and safe deposit boxes
  • information on retirement plans, 401(k) accounts, or IRAs
  • information on debts: credit cards, mortgages and loans, utilities, and unpaid taxes
  • information on Totten trusts or funeral prepayment plans, and any final arrangements instructions you have made.