Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Have you made it easy for your heirs?

This may seem like an odd post for a blog dedicated primarily to small church related matters, but it really isn't.  As many of you know, last year I obtained an auctioneer's license.  In addition to my ministry, I conduct an average of one auction per month.  In many ways, I see my work as an auctioneer as an extension of my ministry because I am often called in to help a family dispose of an estate after a loved one has passed. Recently, I met with another family who was overwhelmed with trying to decide what to do. None of the family live nearby so it was important that they make decisions while they are here. The loss of a loved one is stressful enough, and having to decide what to do with the possessions just adds to the stress. Fortunately, there was a will and family members knew what it said and who was responsible for carrying it out.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case.  Too many people die without a will leaving it up to family members and the courts to decide how to divide the property. This can and does lead to serious family issues some of which are never resolved. Even when a will exists, families may not know of various banking and insurance accounts a loved one may have had. Filing systems vary widely from one person to another making it difficult for that information to be gathered. A family member once named me the executor of his estate but never told me that until less than a month before he passed away.  I literally had to go through every piece of paper in his home and business to be sure I wasn't overlooking anything important. He did have a will so the only thing I had to do was to follow it and submit the proper paperwork, but it was still very stressful trying to make sure I had found everything that might be important.

What can you do to make this difficult time a little easier for your loved ones?  First, make sure you have an up-to-date will and that your heirs know what's in it and where it's located. It is amazing how many people do not have a will. Do they think if they don't have a will that they won't die? I know many people don't like to think about death, but right now the death rate is 100 percent, with or without a will. You can make it much easier on your family if you have one. Incidentally, the cost of having an attorney prepare a will is very small so don't say you can't afford it. If problems arise because you do not have a will it will likely cost many times more to resolve them than it would have cost to have had a will.

 In that will you should have named an executor of your estate, and it's very important that you have discussions with that person letting them know where they can locate the information they will need to properly handle your estate. I have a single file that contains that information, and my family knows where that file is located. Again, the goal is to reduce the stress on your loved ones as much as possible.

A third thing to consider is downsizing as you grow older. I've talked with several retired ministers in the past few weeks who are in the process of doing away with their libraries. One told me he had sold some of his books and had given others to a young minister who recently entered the ministry. Few things are more difficult for a minister than for him or her to give up their library, but what would our spouses do with those books? I'm not ready to retire yet, but I have been thinking seriously about what to do with my own library. Although I haven't done anything yet to get rid of books, I have cut way back on buying new ones.

One other thing pastors should do is to challenge their congregations to do these things as well. None of us knows when our time on this earth is done, and taking steps to make our passing easier on our families is one way of loving them well. You may want to invite someone in who specializes in estate planning to talk to the congregation about these matters. This person would bring not only expertise, but he or she would also be an outside voice.

It's never easy to discuss these matters, but it is important that we do so. Losing a loved one is tough enough. Let's not compound their pain by forcing them to make decisions about our possessions that we should have already made for them.

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