Guest Author Melanie Cullen: Get It Together—for yourself, for your loved ones

PrintIf you’ve ever pitched in for someone who has become incapacitated, or if you’ve helped to wrap up an estate following a death, you know how hard it is. It’s hard emotionally to step into the void left by that person, however temporarily. It can be hard spiritually to lose the companionship of one you love and the partnership of one you rely on. And, for all of us, it is downright exhausting to figure out what needs to be done, when, and where to find the information needed to get the job done.

You may wonder, Can I make it easier for my loved ones when my time comes? And we know it can happen to any of us—young adults, newlyweds, new parents, those planning travel or deployment, those facing illness, boomers, and seniors.

The process involves identifying secure-yet-handy storage, preparing important documents, collecting related records, documenting information, talking with loved ones, and maintaining the materials over time. Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won’t Have To (Nolo) provides assistance with each step.

Direction and a framework

The Get It Together book (with eForms) provides direction and a framework. It is a step-by-step guide to creating an organizer for you—an eventual road map for your survivors. Your planner will be comprehensive, covering:

  1. You and your life, including children and other dependents, pets, employment and business interests, memberships and communities, secured places, and passwords.
  2. Assets and liabilities, such as insurance, bank and brokerage accounts, retirement plans, credit cards and debts, real estate, vehicles, and personal property.
  3. Legal and final arrangements, including health care directives, powers of attorney for finances, will, trusts, burial or cremation, funeral or memorial.

The book is organized into two parts, guide and planner:

  • The guide includes helpful direction for questions you may have:

Do I need a will? Do I need other legal documents, such as a medical directive or a durable power of attorney for finances? What legal documents will provide care for my minor children, if necessary?

Who can access my safe deposit box when I’m incapacitated and when I die? How soon can they access—so what should I store there?

What will happen to my retirement accounts when I die? What do my loved ones need to know?

What is probate—and how can I help my survivors to avoid it?

  • The planner includes tables, topic by topic, to help you document necessary information. The planner is also available electronically if you wish to complete on your computer—complete a section, password protect (optional), save, print, retrieve to update, modify, and save your files again.

Road map for survivors

When something happens to you, your loved ones will simply turn to your planner. At the front, they will find:

  • Your name and the date of your last planner update.
  • Last letters from you, if you choose to write them.
  • Instructions, a customized directory to your planner, outlining what they need to do in the first 48 hours, the next couple of weeks, the next couple of months, and beyond, directing them to each section of your planner for the information they need when they need it.

Organization for you

Until that time, however, you will enjoy your improved organization, completing tasks more easily, accurately, and swiftly. Here are some instances when your planner will bless you!

Renting, selling, or buying a home. When you’re moving, you can easily access necessary records—home and contents insurance policy, renter’s insurance policy, rental or lease agreement, mortgage documents, or real estate deed. You might also have arrangements with service providers for your home such as gardeners, housecleaners, HVAC maintenance, or pool service—for whom contact information, business arrangements, or contracts are neatly stored in your planner.

As you change your address, many of the records you need will be in your planner—for example, insurance policies, your annual Social Security statement, contact information for memberships, communities, medical providers, and home service providers.

Selling your car. When you sell a vehicle, you know exactly where to find the certificate of title, loan documents, insurance policy, and any other related documents.

Fleeing your home in an emergency. If you ever have to evacuate in a hurry, you can grab your planner from your safe, and you’ve got all of your important records, portable and ready to go—policies, documents, statements, certificates, and title records.

Getting married or becoming divorced or widowed. Many of your important records are affected when your marital status changes. Having your records in one place not only makes it simple for you to locate a given record, but also allows you to easily review your records to consider changes. For example, you may wish to:

  • Health Care Directives or Powers of Attorney. Make new documents and select different agents to act on your behalf, when necessary.
  • Will or Living Trust. Review and ensure that your wishes are current and complete—including agents that will act on your behalf, descriptions of your property, title to your property, and disposition of property when you die.
  • Bank and Brokerage Accounts. Review how you hold title to your accounts (that is, for example, as an individual, jointly with another, or in the name of your living trust) and any pay- or transfer-on-death beneficiaries you have named on the accounts.
  • Name Change. Consider changing your driver’s license, Social Security account, passport, credit cards, and more.

Losing your wallet. Most of us have recorded the contents of our wallets, either by hand or on a copier machine. Emails circulate periodically to remind us of this task. But how many of us keep those records up to date? And where do you store that information once you’ve recorded it? This information is captured in your planner, and you can easily maintain the information. For example:

  • For a new credit card, toss into your planner your notes or the materials you receive that show the account number and customer service telephone.
  • For a membership or credit card that is no longer active, just manually cross out the entry in your planner.

In this way, if you lose your wallet, you will be able to follow up easily.

Suffering an accident or becoming seriously ill. If you are unable to handle your affairs for a period of time, you may need someone to step in and help. Your completed planner will relieve a lot of stress and confusion—for you and for your caregiver. Not only will your agents for healthcare and finance have the authority they need, but they can readily find all of the related information they will need. To learn more, see Chapters 11 and 12, Health Care Directives and Durable Power of Attorney for Finances.

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Melanie Cullen, author of Get It Together, served as executor and successor trustee when her mother died. She found herself awash in questions, grief, tasks, decisions, and family dynamics—all layered on top of an already-busy life far from Mom’s home. She vowed then to make the process easier for her loved ones!

 In 2003, she partnered with Nolo, the premiere self-help-law publishing firm. Now in its 6th Edition, the book is a top-selling estate planning book, available through all major booksellers.

Following a career in executive management for retail and distribution, Melanie has served as a management consultant since 2000. She holds an MBA from the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University.

For more information, to order the book or companion Binder & Tab Set, or to contact Melanie, see the book’s website