Three Ways To Defuse Estate Rifts

It's impossible to know what will happen to your family after you're gone, but it's doubtful you're envisioning a bitter squabble over your possessions. Yet many a family is torn asunder when a patriarch or matriarch leaves this world.

Although there are no guarantees the claws won't come out, here are three documents that may reduce the potential for a serious rift:

1. A will. Virtually every adult with assets of any value needs a will. Typically, a will is the centerpiece of an estate plan and covers everything from appointing guardians for young children and addressing estate tax issues to determining who will receive your most valuable assets. A will gives you the opportunity to spell out who will inherit the beach house or expensive jewelry as well as other items of sentimental value.

A properly executed will is legally enforceable, so it's crucial that yours meets all of the technicalities of your jurisdiction. If you have significant assets you'll probably need to hire an attorney to draw up the document. It's likely that it will need to be updated in the future as your family circumstances change.

2. Personal property memorandum. Your will likely won't cover every last trinket you own, and it's a hassle to revise it all the time for minor changes. A personal property memorandum can supplement a will and may be referred to in the will itself. The memorandum can list all of your personal assets and your intended beneficiary for each item.

More than half of the nation's states have laws recognizing a personal property memorandum as legally binding. To avoid confusion, include a detailed description of your property. Make sure your executor has an official copy of both the will and the memorandum.

3. Letter of instruction. This is the last piece of the puzzle. Although a letter of instruction isn't legally binding, it can clarify certain issues and provide additional guidance to your heirs. The letter may include:

  • The location of important documents, such as your will, insurance policies, titles, and deeds;
  • Details of cemetery plots and funeral arrangements;
  • Contacts for legal, tax, and financial information;
  • A list and descriptions of all financial assets, including savings and checking accounts, stocks, bonds, and retirement accounts;
  • The location of your tax returns for the past three years;
  • The location of safe deposit boxes and keys; and
  • Other special requests (for example, preferences for grandchildren attending college).

Last, but not least, your family members need to know about these three documents and where to find them.

This article was written by a professional financial journalist for G.W. Sherwold and is not intended as legal or investment advice.

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