Tell Your Spouse/Personal Representative What They Really Need to Know and Address the Real Concerns

Tell Your Spouse/Personal Representative What They Really Need to Know and Address the Real Concerns

By Estate Planning Practice Group

Many people think an estate plan is a Will and some beneficiary designations on insurance and retirement accounts. You do it once, put it in a drawer, and dust it off once every 10 years. But a Will doesn’t convey the information your surviving spouse or personal representative (sometimes referred to as an “executor”) really needs to know. A Will basically says who gets the stuff. Your surviving spouse probably already knew that, and so did the kids. What is of most concern to your surviving spouse or your personal representative are usually things such as: what are the assets; where is the information located; who I am supposed to call; who is in control; is there enough to maintain the lifestyle of the survivor; what steps to take on retirement accounts and insurance claims; how should insurance proceeds be reinvested; what happens to businesses with partners; etc.

A Will simply does not provide any information on these items. The confusion of not knowing key information adds anxiety to an already stressful time. To make your estate plan complete, think beyond the Will and the beneficiary designations. Be sure your plan addresses the real concerns. Here are some tips to making a good estate plan a great one:


Things to cover include:

  • What you own, where the documents are located, obligations owed, and suggestions on how each item should be handled;
  • Key people to call and telephone numbers;
  • Summary of key legal and accounting steps that need to be taken at the death of a spouse;
  • What insurance benefits are available, and suggestions for reinvesting the proceeds;
  • What pension, IRA and annuity benefits are available and steps to take (such as IRA rollover to preserve income tax deferral) on each;
  • What will happen on any Buy-Sell Agreements with business partners;
  • Funeral and burial instructions;
  • Personal history; and
  • Information on health and disability insurance.

How detailed you should get in your instructions will obviously depend on how familiar your spouse or personal representative already is with these items. The information can be placed in a notebook along with your other estate planning documents so it is organized and can be easily located later. It is a good idea to go over the instructions with your spouse or personal representative. If you are single and your child is your personal representative, introducing your child to the key advisors can be helpful. Finally, you should update the information to keep it current. Having everything organized and up to date makes things much easier to handle and less expensive.


Frankly, a primary concern of many people is not so much transferring wealth to their children, but rather building, conserving and protecting the wealth during their lifetimes. In other words, the key questions are: is there enough cash flow for retirement, is there enough cash flow after the death of a spouse, what are the sources of cash flow, and how do I access them. To provide comfort and security, you need good advice from your advisors on how much is needed for retirement so the surviving spouse can maintain their lifestyle and also so that children do not have to liquidate crucial assets to pay death taxes. Important decisions include how much life insurance is needed, the type, and who the owner and beneficiary should be. Meeting with your financial/insurance advisors regularly, in coordination with your CPA and attorney, to update your planning is part of making and maintaining a great estate plan.


A Will doesn’t avoid court probate. Probate adds a layer of extra administration and expense and often extra time for settling the estate. A court conservatorship can add expense and court involvement in the event of incapacity. Both can be avoided with a Revocable Living Trust (with a power of attorney) instead of only a Will. Also, an Advance Directive for health care decisions and an Authorization for Release of Medical Information to selected individuals are important additions to an estate plan.


Make sure your plan has the proper language and your assets are titled appropriately so you can use two death tax exclusions instead of only one. It’s a shame when assets have to be sold to pay death taxes that could have been avoided. For estates larger than two exclusions (each exclusion is currently $2 million for federal and $1 million for Oregon), there are additional techniques to consider to reduce death taxes, such as Life Insurance Trusts, gifting, Qualified Personal Residence Trusts, and qualifying for valuation discounts on entities.


Sometimes just bequeathing the assets outright to the kids does not match your real goals. For instance, in some cases you may want a portion to go to trust for education of the grandkids, or for the children’s share to remain in a type of trust that will provide enhanced protection from divorce and creditors throughout their lives. In some cases there is a desire to make distributions to charity, either outright or through a family fund that continues on with the family advising on charitable distributions. Finally, carefully consider who you want to be in charge of settling the estate, to serve as trustee of any trusts, and as guardians for minors. Conflicts can be avoided by choosing wisely.


Life changes, and so should your plan as circumstances change. Your plan should always match your current situation and identify your wishes.

In summary, by having a plan that addresses your real concerns, you can turn a mediocre estate plan into a great one.

If you would like more information or have questions on this topic, please contact our office.