By definition, if an estate plan is triggered, it is because of the death or serious disability of a family member or close friend. Therefore, most estate plans are administered during periods of great grief and mourning. Those who survive the deceased are charged not only with handling the final wishes of the deceased, with regard to memorial services and disposition of the remains, but also the financial and administrative issues that relate to someone’s death.
Many decisions must be made following the loss of a loved one. But none of these important decisions have to made right away. In fact, it is best to postpone making any decisions, most importantly financial decisions, until you have had a chance to grieve and recover from your loss.
Most mental health professionals will suggest you wait six months to a year before making any significant financial decisions following the death of a loved one. Waiting to make a decision isn’t easy for everyone. Some people are overwhelmed by their unknown financial future and just can’t help but think about “what’s next?”
A recent poster child for this is Chanel Reynolds. She is a mother of two young children whose husband was tragically killed in a biking accident in 2013. Reynolds told “Morning Edition,” “I really wanted to be focusing on what the doctors were saying and taking care of my children when instead I was just overwhelmed by this pile of questions about legal stuff and finances and probate courts, and it was occasionally the thing that would just put me over the edge.”
She went on to say, “My husband was killed in an accident. In the following hours, weeks and months I was shocked at how many things we had left disorganized or ignored.” She explained how she didn’t even know her husband’s passwords to his email or phone and even notifying his family was difficult. She acknowledged that life doesn’t go according to plan. “Should the ground fall out from under your feet—plan now for a softer landing.”
My experience echoes Ms. Reynolds statements. Of those I meet who have lost a loved one, the most panicked are those without a plan or those who just don’t know what is going to happen next. When you are focused on your finances you aren’t allowed to progress through the grieving process.
Grieving is indeed a process. Healing happens gradually and it can’t be forced or hurried. People often start to feel better in weeks or months but for others it can take years. This road to recovery doesn’t start until you let it. If you don’t start because you are preoccupied with other matters, it may never get better.
Preparing an estate plan can bring certainty to an uncertain time. If you take the time and effort to prepare your documents now you can focus on your grief and on your family should a loss occur. When a client calls to inform me a loved one has died, my advice is to focus on themselves and their family. Handle the necessary steps, such as coordinating the memorial or final service and only after that is complete then schedule a time to meet with me to discuss “what’s next.”
This is easier said than done. Those who have a plan can take this advice because the uncertainty of the future in minimized by plans already in place. Those who have no plan struggle with the uncertainty, often ignore my advice, and feel compelled to discuss the matter as soon as possible.
Estate planning is important for many reasons. It can save time and money but more importantly it can even help you get through a difficult time – perhaps one of the most difficult times in your life.
Eric S. Gullotta, JD, CPA, MS (Tax) focuses on estate planning and taxation law. His office is located at 232 West Napa Street, Suite A, in Sonoma. Contact him at 938.7234 or visit Gullottalaw.com.