Need Another New Year’s Resolution?

Jennifer R. Luitjens, Esq., CELA*

The New Year has now come and gone. How are you doing with your 2009 New Year’s resolution? Did you already accomplish it or did you abandon it before January ended? If you’re game to consider a new resolution, why not consider an alternative, perhaps less conventional one? Not to worry – it doesn’t involve a craze diet, new workout regimen, or home improvement project, but rather one that you can accomplish with just a little time and no money. 

It may not be glamorous, but a resolution to organize your personal affairs, both legal and financial, definitely deserves some consideration. While tackling this project may cause mild anxiety for some (more than some?), its completion should provide a deeper sense of peace for you and your family.  

Let’s presume, for a moment, that you have your “affairs” in order.   Is everything organized? Are all the pertinent papers in one spot? Are they safe yet accessible? Does anyone other than you know where to locate them and would they have access in the event of your illness or death? Let’s still presume that you have answered these questions in the affirmative. Can you also say that this third party would have a clue what to do in such a situation?  

Here’s one “organizing” suggestion: prepare an instruction letter to your “third party,” whether it be your Executor, successor Trustee, or other fiduciary agent.   This letter shouldn’t be a lengthy manual, but a couple pages of pertinent information. Because the following list of suggestions may seem overwhelming, you may consider compiling the information over a week’s time, as follows: 

DAY 1: (1) the names of family/friends to contact; and (2) the names of professional advisors to contact (given the economy, perhaps Suze Orman?);

DAY 2: (3) the location of legal documents (e.g., will, trust, power of attorney); and (4) the location of other important documents (e.g., car titles, life and other insurance policies, Mona Lisa authenticity certificate);

DAY 3: Day of rest – you need to prepare for Day 4;

DAY 4: (5) an asset account summary (e.g., bank accounts, retirement funds, other investments);

DAY 5: (6) a debt summary (e.g., mortgage information, credit cards);

DAY 6: Day of celebration (glass of wine or chocolate?) because you made it through the previous 2 days;

DAY 7: (7) miscellaneous information (e.g., charitable obligations, hidden key locations, on-line passwords).

Does this still seem daunting? Imagine how your “third party” would feel if he had to be called into action without a clue? Will he have to ransack your house to find your important papers? Will he have to wait for your mail in order to figure out what accounts and bills you have, perhaps even waiting several months for those quarterly or annual statements? If there is no paper trail, will he need to hack into your computer?  Simply imagine how you would feel if you were thrown into such a situation should cause you to start on your “letter” immediately. You are definitely doing him (or her) and your family a favor by doing so.

And after completing this task this year, think how much easier it will be when you resolve to do this again for 2010? We could all use New Year’s resolutions we can keep!

Jennifer R. Luitjens is Certified as an Elder Law Attorney (CELA) by the National Elder Law Foundation, a non-profit organization accredited by the ABA. She lives in Jericho and practices in South Burlington with the Jarrett Law Office. This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute comprehensive or specific legal advice. The author stresses the need to engage appropriate legal and financial professionals when devising your individual estate plan.