January 01, 2012

Book Review: ABA Checklist for Family Heirs

Erica Wood

Fast forward and imagine you have died, and your heirs, weighed down by grief and fatigue, are sorting through your things. They want to write an obituary but "what was Mom’s title in that job she had?" and "Didn’t Dad get some kind of award?" They know there is a safe deposit box, but where is the key? They remember you had kept some important financial information on your computer, but what is the password? They need to contact the insurance agent, but can’t locate his name and number. Where is the deed to the condo and the title to the car? How can they find out about any survivor benefits? Just what kind of memorial service would Mom have wanted?

Help Is at Hand

The ABA Checklist for Family Heirs is a way to organize all of the information and documents that will be helpful to heirs or indeed anyone you care about. It is essentially a book of lists, conceived as a gift from you to your heirs. "One of the kindest things you can do for your family is to spare them needless frustration and stressful decisions at the time of your death. . . . You can make your own death easier on your family and significant others" by assembling and organizing key information, and recording your own preferences.

The book is divided into three sections. In the first section, you can record information about your personal history and your family history. This will be a legacy to pass on. It is also very practical, including places to list all key contact information from financial advisors to lawn service and pet care; a list of records and which ones are in the safe deposit box or in another location—and two whole pages devoted to organizational passwords!

The second section is a set of checklists on assets and liabilities. This includes detailed information on insurance, benefits for survivors, banking and savings, investments, real estate, and other assets and debts.

Finally, in the third section, you can describe the legal planning documents you have executed, where they are located, and what your final wishes are. Information about powers of attorney, trust agreements and health care advance directives will come into play if you become incapacitated. Information about your will or trust and your final wishes is needed upon death, and should be readily available.

Each chapter within these sections begins with a list to use in collecting the essential information. For each item on the list, the book gives a clear and concise explanation of why the item is important and how you could go about getting, keeping, or organizing it. The chapters conclude with additional lists your family can use in undertaking the tasks required. Each chapter is then followed by a detailed checklist form for your personal records.

In addition, the book comes with a CD-ROM including all of the checklist forms. The author suggests either filling in the checklist forms directly in the book with pencil, so you can make changes easily, or filling them in electronically with the CD. Either way, they can regularly be updated. (But be sure to note in the book the computer file name so your heirs can find it on your computer!)

The book, including appendices at the end with an ultimate "checklist of checklists," a survivor’s checklist, heir’s checklist and resource list, is over 240 pages. It will take a while to complete! The author suggests taking it section by section, and discussing the project with your family so they will know what you are undertaking and how it will help them.

"Don’t look upon it as a task. If you approach it in manageable sections and view it as a fascinating family project, you will find it can give you great satisfaction to track down bits and pieces of your family history, locate the missing birth certificates, and gradually put your affairs in order."

Published by the American Bar Association, the book will be of great benefit to trust and estate attorneys. Here is the ideal organizational tool to recommend to clients as you prepare their legal documents. Indeed, "putting affairs in order" means more than executing wills and powers of attorney. Ideally, the legal consultation could include a suggestion to organize and record wishes, instructions, and records more broadly. Here is a resource your clients will appreciate.

Erica Wood

About the Author: Erica Wood, Assistant Director, ABA Commission on Law and Aging.