You have an old but valid life insurance policy tucked away somewhere from an employer you worked with before you were married. Your IRA and pension are administered by two different financial advisors in another state.
Oh yeah – and you just died. Or you’re incapacitated and unable to remember or communicate important details to your family. It happens every day, but not to you. Until it does.
Regardless of whether you’re young and in great health or older and have a will that you mistakenly believe “covers everything,” you may be putting your assets and final wishes at risk along with your loved ones’ peace of mind. You need a written plan that provides detailed information about your assets, liabilities and intentions along with the basic, everyday information that you know and take for granted, but exists solely in your head.
It’s time to stop pretending that your life or the quality of life that you enjoy today will never end. Instead, focus on easing your loved ones’ emotional pain and confusion during this time of stress and turmoil.
It’s time for you to write your family a love letter.
Why everyone needs one
“The Family Love Letter is a road map for the people beside you or coming behind you,” explains Stewart Barnes, a private wealth advisor with The Myrias Group, a private wealth advisory practice of Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc. that is located in Roanoke County. “It gives them clues and information about your financial needs, assets and other issues that they will have to deal with in the event of your incapacitation or death. It’s essentially a tool to communicate with those that you love in a very systematic way so that items aren’t overlooked or mistakes made during a time of grief and stress. It’s really about keeping people focused on what is important.”
“It gives them clues and information about your financial needs, assets and other issues that they will have to deal with in the event of your incapacitation or death,” says Stewart Barnes, a private wealth advisor with The Myrias Group.
First co-authored in the 1990s and updated regularly by Donna Pagano, a certified financial planner, and Jeff Scroggin, a business, tax and estate planning attorney, the Family Love Letter has gained national attention by helping countless families nationwide to organize and communicate their vital financial and personal information with loved ones in the event of death or incapacitation.
A love letter is not a will
“A will is a legal document usually prepared by an attorney,” Barnes explains. “It covers specific requests and only comes into play when you die. So many other things can come up, including illness, incapacitation or dementia. You’re still alive, but you may not be able to communicate everything. A will can certainly be part of the Family Love Letter, but it’s just one piece of what needs to be communicated.”
We don’t get to pick when unexpected life events occur, so there really is no age band for who should have a Family Love Letter. “Is it critical for my 20-year-old daughter to have one?” Barnes asks. The answer is probably not, at least in comparison with someone who has multiple bank accounts and investments, owns a car and home, and has dependents. Depending on the individual and their circumstances, the Love Letter could be simple or it could be very complex, such as in the case of a 75-year-old business owner with real estate holdings.
“What we have found is that people who have experienced the death or incapacitation of a parent and had to work through determining their assets and wishes really grasp the need for this document,” Barnes says.
What it is
The heart of the Family Love Letter is a 40-page booklet divided into five distinct sections — advisors and assets, financial information, insurance and benefits, documents and other information, and family history and ethical will. Each section asks the participant to answer a series of questions regarding the contact info of their banker and insurance advisor, their brokerage accounts, their liabilities, their subscriptions to periodicals, the locations of their important documents, their computer passwords, the locations of any safety deposit boxes and other detailed information. At first glance, the scope of the required information can be intimidating, but help is available.
Barnes, along with Sheryl Crawford, a financial advisor with The Myrias Group, holds an event at various times throughout the year to explain what the Family Love Letter is. They provide attendees with copies of the workbook at no charge and discuss why it’s needed. That main event is followed by two complimentary, informational workshops held locally at different times to help people work through the document with the experts. Each workshop lasts for approximately two hours, with the first workshop covering sections one through three in the workbook and the second covering sections four and five. These workshops are limited to 20 participants in order to ensure individualized attention.
“By walking people through the Love Letter’s components, we’re able to save people time and, more importantly, prevent them from getting stuck so that they’re able to actually complete the questionnaire,” Crawford says.
Barnes adds that an attorney and a tax expert are also present at the workshops in order to provide additional expertise regarding the Love Letter’s various sections and to answer any questions that arise.
“We’ve held approximately 20 workshops since June and helped participants complete their Family Love Letters,” Barnes says. “It’s a process, not a destination. Participants are making progress on things they know they needed to do but haven’t done, and they’re happy that they are able to specify exactly what they want to happen in the event of their death or incapacitation.”
Going it alone
Even without a Family Love Letter, your estate and wishes will still be executed, Barnes explains; it’s just going to take a lot more time and heartache. Your family members may not know if they have executed your wishes properly, and there’s a higher likelihood of family strife. There may still be disagreement even with a Love Letter — but having a Love Letter in which you explain the rationale for what’s in your will, for example, can go a long way toward preserving family relationships.
Sharing a couple’s example from one of the workshops that she helped lead, Crawford said that the husband thought his wife’s funeral would be a formal, somber affair and that she wanted a traditional casket. Then he read her Love Letter and realized that she wanted the event to be just the opposite: It was important to her that her hiking boots be placed atop a natural box that she’d chosen instead of a casket.
While utilizing the workshops and experts’ knowledge and experience can make the process easier and increase the likelihood that it’ll be completed, Crawford does explain that a Family Love Letter can be created without attending any workshops. Participants simply need to visit www.familyloveletter.com and order the workbook, which costs $18.95 plus shipping.
“The Family Love Letter is a way for the individual to get their voice out there and maybe tell family members things they weren’t comfortable telling them when they were alive,” Barnes explains. “The important thing is to get the information down on paper.”
In part two of this continuing series, the May-June issue of OurHealth will examine the Love Letter’s first section — “Advisors & Assets” — to review the information that will be gathered, why it’s important and what pitfalls to avoid.