How would your family know your wishes if you were no longer around?

The topic of this week’s blog post is not fun. But I can assure you that it’s even less fun dealing with the emotions of a major family crisis and then adding the stress of not knowing how to begin piecing a loved one’s life together in their absence. If you organize your financial information and provide instructions for loved ones now, it can save a lot of time, frustration, and money for them later.

            “But of that day and hour knoweth no man…” Matthew 24:36 KJV.  Because of this, it is so important that in the case of death, your loved ones, or responsible friends, know where your information is, how to access it, and what your wishes are.

1. What are your wishes?

           The only way for your wishes to be known after death is through a will.  Without a will, any assets upon your death will be distributed through the intestacy laws of the state. (Testate means dying with a will and intestate means dying without a will. The person who makes a will is known as a “testator.”) Allowing your assets to go intestate, without a will, tends to cause a lot of confusion and family in-fighting. As a result, it is usually advisable to have a will.

A will is a document which transfers your property at your death to designated people. It can be changed until your death and is only effective upon your death.

Wills are governed by state law. Most people go to an attorney to have a will drafted, which is by far the best way. However, in a pinch, it might be better to have something rather than nothing. Luckily, half of the states allow a will written completely in the handwriting of the testator otherwise known as a holographic will. See if your state is one of them, here.

            A holographic will allows some of the formalities of a formal will to be waived, i.e. the requirements of having witnesses. It should be noted that having the will completely in your handwriting is important. With the advent of online legal websites, there has been a lot of debate regarding typed wills and in at least one case, a typed will was held not to be valid. In writing a will, you must declare it to be your “Last Will and Testament.” It must be in your writing and signed by you. You should also name a personal representative, who is known as an “Executor.” The executor is the individual in charge of carrying out the terms and conditions of your will.

2. Where is your information?

I am a huge fan of investing in a Safe Deposit Box. Safe Deposit Boxes are available at most banks for a nominal yearly fee. It can help secure important personal documents and collectibles. How do you decide what to put in the box? Use this thought as your guide: If I lost this document, it would be impossible, costly, or very difficult to replace.

One thing that shouldn’t go into your safe deposit box, believe it or not, is your will. Many states have rules about who and how a safe deposit box can be accessed after one’s death. The worst case is that your loved one would have to go to court to have the safe deposit box opened which can be costly and time consuming.

A good place for your will is in a fire-proof safe in your home or other safe place; however, wherever you place your will for safe keeping, you need to let your Executor know.

Additionally, you should have a list of information available either in your possession where a trusted family member or friend knows how to find it, or better yet, with a trusted third party, such as an attorney or accountant.  I have provided a good starting point for you to use to begin your information collection process, PersonalInventory. Please note that each section is not exhaustive, some sections may apply to you and you may need to add others as you see fit. For example, many people like to have a listing of important property such as a watch or coin collection or a listing of firearms.

3. How would a loved one access your information in your absence?

Let a family member, or trusted friend, know how and where to find your information. For example, tell them  “my safe deposit key is in my top drawer in a blue envelope” or “my safe is in the basement and the code is my wedding date.”

With all the formalities of a will and the different requirements of each state, it is probably the best and safest bet to have an attorney draft a will for you. Many states have law schools with legal clinics with law students willing and able to help you for no fee.

Final Thoughts

I will discuss some of these topics in more detail in the future. I wanted to provide a primer to get you started in getting your “house” in order. My favorite quote is with regards to these matters is, “My people will perish for a lack of knowledge.”

Today’s post provides information about the law designed to help readers cope with their own legal needs. However, this information is not the same as legal advice. Although I have gone to great lengths to ensure accurate and useful information, I do recommend that you consult a lawyer if you want professional assurance that the information provided is appropriate for your particular situation.

How Bad Credit Almost Cost Me My Career… (Teaser for today’s Monday Money Matters)

About a year and a half ago, my love/hate (mostly hate) relationship with credit that I had entire adult life went nuclear. Yes, nuclear. How does that happen? Easy. I almost did not gain admission to not only one, but TWO, bars over my bad credit. I take full responsibility for my bad credit because it was a result of years and years, or should I say two separate seven-year cycles, of bad decisions.

My first bad bout with credit happened in college. At the time, it was the credit wild, wild west. Now, there are protections against predatory lending on college campuses. But then, you could get a free t-shirt if you signed up for a credit card and in college, who doesn’t need extra t-shirts to sleep in or better yet, an extra t-shirt, or two to stretch you until laundry day? So if I remember correctly, I had two of those. I also loved to shop at Express so I had one of those too. I’m not sure how any of this was possible considering I was an unemployed college freshman. Fortunately, I was able to squeeze the minimum monthly payments for these cards out of the money my parents sent me per month. This would have been fine until the summer when I could pay off the cards in full but I KEPT using the cards. Talk about under water… I spent the Summer of 2000 negotiating payment terms with debt collectors. Looking back, I made some serious mistakes even in that process, like giving the debt collectors my banking account information for post dated checks. Thankfully, nothing bad happened to me but there’s plenty of stories where bad things did happen for hundreds of Americans.

As if the credit card woes weren’t enough… I racked up crazy utility bills from my off campus living that I clearly could not afford to pay. For someone who never had a full time job longer than three months during the Summer my credit report was getting a little lengthy and not in a good way. In 2005, I paid $250.00 to have a credit repair guy “fix” my credit. Looking back, I could have easily used that money to do it myself. But by 2007, my colleges issues most of my college issues were gone. And you think I would have learned…

Sometimes you have to put your hand in the fire to know it’s hot. This is the one that presented the TKO.  After college, I was able to get three additional cards.  I had a good payment history with all of them until 2009. In 2009, I was laid off from my job (don’t think of this as an excuse). Even during my lay off, I paid regularly on my cards but there were a few notable problems:

1. I carried a balance on my cards when I should have paid them all off.

2. I went to law school and I really couldn’t afford to make monthly payments.

Oh and let’s not forget the issues that I had with PPA, the Philadelphia Parking Authority, or the DC Parking Authority, that ended up on my credit. Or the illegitimate dental bill that miraculously appeared. Or the Bally’s membership that’s been hanging out on my credit too.

Sadly, my credit in 2011, was probably the same as it was in 2002, AND by 2011, I had ALL the education and training to know better.  When you know better, you MUST do better. I worked out payment arrangements with one of my credit cards that I was able to pay with the job I held in law school but everything else remained unchanged. I figured I would handle it when I started working as a full time attorney. Little did I know it was an IF I became licensed.

Most bars have a character and fitness component where you have to report any infractions with the law, including speeding tickets, any instances of dishonesty, and of course, your credit. In March of 2012, when I was completing my first bar application, I started to see how my credit woes would be problematic. With everything I had to report, my application was a book. After passing the bar, I learned that my credit stopped my application to practice law in its tracks. I had to explain what happened and why my credit was so abysmal. Thankfully, by the grace of God (yes the grace of God) I was granted admission.

In November of 2012, I set up a plan to pay off everything I owed, excluding school loans but including my car.  I followed the system in Blog #1 to the “T.” In December, 2012, in full swing of my payoff system, I had to account to another bar for my credit. This bar was not as forgiving as the first. Since I had a plan in place, I was able to provide documentation on what I was doing but I had two looming credit issues from 2005 and 2007 that were erroneous. But when you had credit like mine, two erroneous issues, were hard to believe. But thankfully, I did something right.

I had been claiming these two accounts were erroneous from the moment I started receiving notices for them.  I wrote letters every time I received correspondence from them. I also initiated my own disputes with the credit bureau and the collections agency and documented those interactions.  So when I had to explain why I was not paying these particular accounts, I had years of documentation to prove my claims. After a few months, I was sworn into the second bar. Can you say sweating bullets?

Over a year later, now my debt payoff plan is complete, I have other issues like tons and tons and tons of credit offers. I think I get at least 10 per week. I didn’t even know there were THAT many credit card companies out there.  But I don’t apply for ANY of them. What I did do, however, was that I asked for an increase on my credit card (just to see what would happen) and I found out that I had GOOD credit. After thirteen years of suspect credit, I had GOOD credit! I think I told everyone I talked to that day my credit score. I remember talking to my father about something completely unrelated and said, “Well you know, life’s different when you have GOOD credit.” Indeed it is…

I shared this story for a few reasons. One, to show even as finance person, I have made some terrible mistakes and it wasn’t until I nearly lost everything I worked for that I got my act together. I hope that you don’t have a moment remotely similar to mine before starting to be aggressive with credit repair. Two, to show that it took about a year using the program in Blog #1 to really see results.  Three, to show that the suggestions and knowledge that I will provide later today, I have used successfully.