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There's more to estate planning than the will

Erik Dewey wrote The Big Book of Everything as a guide.
Erik Dewey wrote The Big Book of Everything as a guide.
Published Sep. 27, 2014

Wills, health care directives, lists of passwords to online accounts. By now, most people know they should prepare these items before the unthinkable, yet inevitable, happens.

But the information family and friends will need when a loved one dies goes far beyond those much-talked-about documents.

Tips on preparing for the end of life can fill a book — as Erik A. Dewey, a writer from Tulsa, Okla., knows firsthand. It was with great difficulty that he sorted through heaps of paper and online information after his father died at age 65.

He decided to share what he had learned by writing The Big Book of Everything.

His book includes data that people need to keep track of while they're alive, like school and employment history and previous addresses.

Preparing for your own death is "tedious and not very pleasant," acknowledged Mark Gavagan, who wrote the workbook, 12 Critical Things Your Family Needs to Know.

WILL OR LIVING TRUST

A will, of course, distributes your assets after you die. With a living trust, the assets you have transferred to the trust are administered for your benefit during your lifetime, and then transferred to your beneficiaries when you die.

Despite common advice that a living trust is better than a will because you don't need to go through probate — the court process that inventories and distributes a person's property after death — that's not necessarily true, said Sally Hurme, an elder law attorney with AARP.

"The benefits of trusts are overplayed and the disadvantages of probate are exaggerated," said Hurme.

"There are certain circumstances when trusts are appropriate, such as if you have out-of-state real estate or a family business that will continue to be run," she said. Otherwise, she said, a will is fine. If you have any doubt, it's best to research it further or consult a lawyer.

HEALTH CARE POWERS

Both a living will and a durable health care power of attorney concern medical decisions, but there are important differences.

A living will, also called an advance directive in some states, is usually limited to deathbed concerns. It enables you to declare your desire to not have life-prolonging measures used if there is no hope of recovery. A durable power of attorney for health care covers all health care decisions, and lasts only as long as you are incapable of making decisions for yourself. You can, however, set out specific provisions in the power of attorney telling your agent how you would like them to act on your behalf.

POWER OF ATTORNEY

This is granted to someone you trust who can take care of your finances. Unlike a regular power of attorney, a durable one means the person can act even if you become incapacitated. It can be the same person as the health care power of attorney but in the best of all worlds, it probably shouldn't be, as they require different skill sets, Hurme said.

"A health care proxy has got to be someone you can look in the eye and say, 'You've got to be willing to pull the plug in the face of opposition from other people,' " Gavagan said.

But it's not enough to write these up and put them in a drawer, or safe-deposit box where no one has access to them.

"They should be scattered as far and wide as possible — your spouse, your children and your doctors should have your directives," Hurme said. Her organization offers printable advance directive forms by state on its website. Caringinfo.org also provides information and forms.