One of the reasons so many of us procrastinate when it comes to estate planning is a reluctance to think about death and dying. Another reason that may be even stronger is the need to make decisions. It's not so hard to make an appointment with an attorney to draft a will. It's much harder to decide what the provisions of that will should be.
No wonder so many people take the simple approach of "leave everything to my spouse and kids." That works perfectly well for many families. It's also pretty much what the probate code provides for if someone dies intestate.
But what if you don't have a spouse or kids? Or your kids are stepchildren? Or your only biological family is a handful of cousins you haven't seen in years? Or you own valuable heirlooms or artwork that no one in the family cares about?
In cases like these, it's especially important to stop procrastinating about estate planning decisions. Without a will, people close to you who are not blood relatives will inherit nothing. Possessions may be disposed of with little regard for their emotional, historical or even financial value. Your assets may end up in the hands of distant relatives you've never met or even go to the state.
If you don't want that to happen, but you still aren't sure what to do with all your stuff, here are a few ideas that might help you get started.
1. Consider the people close to you that you regard as family even though they may not technically be relatives. Besides stepchildren and grandchildren, this might include longtime friends, caregivers or anyone else who is important in your life. If you'd like to leave inheritances to any of them — whether that might be a few pieces of inexpensive jewelry or a large sum of money — you need to make your wishes known through a will or other estate planning tools.
2. Make charitable giving personal and meaningful. Think about what type of giving is most important to you, whether it might be helping the homeless, funding education or medical research, supporting the arts, or any of hundreds of worthwhile causes. Then consciously choose organizations with goals that match your own.
3. Feel free to be creative. Think about all the places where an unexpected bequest could help your community: libraries, community day-care centers, small museums, elementary schools, arts organizations, volunteer fire departments. Buy a park bench; give a piece of art to a hospital; donate your vintage record albums to a college music department. Have fun finding ways to leave small legacies.
4. Build relationships with "emotional heirs" who share your interests in collections, antiques, tools or other items or activities that have special meaning to you. This may give you a chance to pass your possessions on to someone who will appreciate them and who will also remember you through them.
5. Don't wait till you're gone. Consider donating collections or antiques to museums while you're still around to have some say in what's done with them. Think about giving personal possessions you value but don't necessarily use to someone who would appreciate them — while you are able to add to the value by sharing the stories behind those items.
Finally, remember to use and enjoy what you have. Ironically, thinking through those tough estate planning decisions can make us more aware of what is important — and what isn't — in the here and now. The most important question may be, not what to do with assets after we're gone, but what to do with them while we're still here.