Wednesday, November 14, 2001

Before you leave this world . . .

Personal, financial documents help heirs sort out your life

By Mike Pulfer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Some of us would prefer to be taken by surprise.

        Some of us would like an end-of-game warning, like in football, with about 10 years added to the standard 2 minutes.

        The problem is, you never know about death.

        Even if you you're in good health, there's always that nagging chance you'll stumble in front of a speeding tractor-trailer. Tomorrow.

        In which case, somebody will be looking for your things — and probably wishing you had planned for it a little better.

        “The biggest mistake people make is not making a will,” says Leslie Thomas, a Walnut Hills lawyer.

        And there are others.

        Make sure your insurance policies are up to date, suggests Daniel T. Murphy, Cheviot financial planner. “I always encourage people to make sure they have their accounts set up the way they want them, with the beneficiaries and everything.”

        To be clear, it's usually prudent to make sure the people you've designated to collect your cash are still living.

        “It's important to have certain information ready,” says Judy Barnett, spokeswoman for Linnemann Funeral Home, Erlanger. Along with the will and insurance documents, she mentions veterans' identification and personal background.

        “Social Security number. Date of birth. Place of birth,” she continues, itemizing important information.

        “Parents' names. Mother's maiden name . . . If it's a large family, and they're not real close, sometimes it's hard to remember the last names of siblings and how to spell them and the cities and states where they live.”

        All of this information, she reminds, will be necessary for a newspaper obituary and funeral services.

        “In these times, a lot of people are really jittery,” says Ms. Thomas. Since terrorism came to America, Americans have begun to worry about their safety . . . and their money.

        Some find comfort in knowing their worth won't disappear when they die.

        Important papers — bank statements, insurance policies — “should be organized and filed so they're easy to find,” Ms. Thomas said.

        “A shoe box under the bed is probably not a good idea . . . Some people like to use a safe-deposit box at a bank. Others keep their wills with (their local) probate court.”

        If you have a good relationship with an attorney, he/she might be able to file certain documents.

        Or use your desk at home.

        Just make sure they're easy to find,” Ms. Thomas says. “Then pick one trusted person and tell them, "This is where my important papers are so, if something happens to me, you'll know where to look.' ”

        The Rev. Donald Jordan, owner of Hall-Jordan & Thompson Funeral Home, suggests one of those important papers might be a receipt for prepaid funeral expenses.

        “It makes a lot of sense,” he said. Today, about half of the company's services are prepaid.

        “Where people make the largest mistake,” he said, “is when someone is dying and they know it and they refuse to take care of it beforehand. Bank accounts (named beneficiaries) should be changed and everything should be brought up to date.”

        Depending on your situation, there are many steps to be taken as you anticipate death. But one of them seems to stand out unanimously among the professionals who deal with grieving relatives.

        “The will would be the number-one thing,” says Johnetta Anderson, a spokeswoman for Renfro & Piper Funeral Home, Avondale.

        “There is a common misconception that younger people don't need a will,” says Ms. Thomas. Although they might not be as likely to die soon, a will can actually be more important in those cases.

        “When you have little children depending on you, or a spouse depends on your income, you really need to think what would happen to the family if you died.

        “People with minor children generally know they have someone in mind to manage their affairs if they die,” she says. But, if there is no will, “There could be a big fight between two grandmothers, or a father and a grandmother, or two aunts (over custody rights).”

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