07/28/2010 12:48 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Accidents Happen: Get Your Affairs in Order

Recently, a man stepping off a curb near my office was struck and killed by a passing bus. Only 49, he clearly had many productive years ahead. Reading about it reminded me how quickly unexpected accidents can turn your family upside down, and how vitally important proper planning is.

No matter what your age, you should have already drafted a will and other key documents that outline how you'd like your financial and health matters to be handled if you die, become disabled or fall seriously ill. If you haven't, move that to the top of your must-do list.

Even if you already have such documents in place, however, it's important to review them periodically, particularly if your financial or family situation changes -- say you get married or divorced, have a baby, a beneficiary dies, etc.

Among the things that could go wrong if you haven't made your current wishes known:

  • Court-supervised probate could hold up your estate and result in costly fees.
  • Your ex-spouse might still be named primary beneficiary of certain assets.
  • Children who weren't yet born when you drafted your documents may inadvertently be left out of your estate.
  • The state usually awards assets to surviving spouses, children and other relatives, so friends and favored charities could be passed over.
  • With no will, the state decides guardianship for minor children if both parents die.
  • Your preferences for things like life-support procedures and burial instructions might not be followed exactly.
Here are a few documents to consider for preventing these scenarios:

Will. A will declares who should receive your assets, indicates an executor to handle your estate and names a guardian for your minor children, among other decisions.

Revocable living trust. A revocable living trust creates a trust to which ownership of your assets is transferred. As trustee, you control the trust and as beneficiary, you own its assets. After you die, assets are transferred to your successor beneficiaries (your heirs) without having to go through probate. Many folks also create a "back-up" or "pour-over" will, which essentially "pours" any newly acquired or additional property they owned at death into their trust, in order to avoid probate on those newer assets.

Financial durable power of attorney. This document specifies who has legal authority to pay your bills, manage your assets and conduct other financial matters if you become incapacitated.

Healthcare durable power of attorney. This document assigns someone to make your medical decisions if you're unable to do so for yourself. Be sure to pick someone who would closely follow your wishes and can make tough decisions.

Living will. A living will instructs doctors and hospitals which medical treatments and life-support procedures you do or don't want. Have your doctor put a copy in your medical file.

There are a few additional considerations for any of these documents:

  • Sign, date and notarize them and file for safekeeping.
  • Compare will or trust beneficiaries to those named in your insurance or retirement plans to eliminate conflicts.
  • Before naming an executor or power of attorney, make sure the people you wish to designate are up to the task.
  • Name alternate beneficiaries and executors in case one of them should happen to die before you.
Do-it-yourself kits like Quicken WillMaker Plus and LegalZoom are available, although you should probably have an attorney who specializes in estate law review your documents. And if trusts, complex estates or large assets are involved, definitely hire a professional -- one typo or skipped signature could end up costing far more than the lawyer's fee.

Free or low-cost legal assistance is often available for lower-income people. A few helpful sites include:

  •, an organization that provides referrals to local legal aid and public interest law offices, with a state-by-state search engine.
  • Legal Services Corporation, an independent nonprofit corporation that provides civil legal aid to the poor through grants to local legal aid programs.
  • American Bar Association, the professional association for lawyers, which provides state-by-state referrals for legal assistance, including free legal help for those who qualify.
My motto: Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how tax laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation. You should also consult a lawyer to determine how estate, probate and/or other laws may apply to your specific circumstances.

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