Unclaimed property


There’s a total of more than $32 billion in the nation’s unclaimed property pools representing more than 117 million accounts. It’s mostly money or assets that were either forgotten or abandoned – and in many cases, the abandonment occurred when the account holder died and nobody else knew the account(s) existed. Don’t let your property become part of that pot!
We’ve previously talked about the importance of updating your beneficiaries on insurance polices and other financial records. Just like changing batteries in your smoke detector and getting your car inspected, you should set a routine time to do this annually – failing to do so might leave your loved ones wrangling with court proceedings – or even totally unprotected. The importance of planning cannot be overemphasized. Not to be grim, but you simply never know when your time will be up. For a statistical assessment, see our prior post What are the Odds where we have a lot of risk tools that you can play with. They range from actuarial tables to to calculators for finding out your relative risk of dying in the next year or being attacked by a shark.
OK, you get the point. Planning is important. This past week, the Wall St. Journal featured an excellent and very helpful article in their finance section about The 25 Documents You Need Before You Die – alternately titled as “Designing your death dossier,” which makes it sound pretty fancy. The article makes the point that it is not simply enough to ensure that your policies are updated – it’s also critical that somebody in your family knows what and where all your important documents are.
We counted more than 25 important documents referenced in the article – but it is unlikely that all will be relevant to your situation. Nevertheless, it’s a great reference article to bookmark and keep as a checklist for your annual planning.
Oh, and about that unclaimed $32 billion, if you think any of it might rightfully belong to you, here’s a good place to check: The National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators will let you conduct a free search.

Bizarre bequeathments and strange will requests


Would you like to be buried in your favorite car? Or perhaps you’d prefer to be preserved as a mummy sitting upright and kept on display at your alma mater? And how would you like your assets to be dispersed? Would you like to leave your life’s fortune to a precious pooch or to have it divvied up and doled out to strangers? Or perhaps after you’ve passed, you’d like to have a single red rose delivered daily to your surviving spouse, the way Jack Benny did? All these odd will requests and many others have been stipulated in wills at one time or another.
Whether your post-mortem wishes are highly exotic or purely pedestrian, they aren’t likely to happen at all unless you take proactive steps to ensure that they do – and that requires filing a will and keeping it updated. Making a will is an important part of the financial planning process.
Dying intestate” is the common term for dying without a will. When that happens, decisions about the disposition of your assets default to the applicable state law, which may or may not be in accordance with your preferences. Dying intestate might also result in a dispute among potential your heirs or a delay in assets being dispersed to your heirs. The CCH Financial Planning Toolkit adds some important considerations:

“The bad thing about dying intestate (other than dying, of course) is that a state’s default rules may not go far enough to meet a deceased’s distribution wishes. For example, although a surviving spouse is generally first in line to inherit, the spouse may end up having to share the estate with other relatives of the deceased. Also, if a person is not on the list of potential heirs, then he or she is out of luck (which may result in excluding a “life partner,” lifelong friend, or favorite charity). The final indignity is that, if there are no relatives identified during probate, the state takes the assets the deceased spent a lifetime acquiring.”

You can learn what is likely to happen to your assets should you die without a will by checking this map of intestate succession laws for all 50 states.
It’s important to note that a will is not the be all and end all for ensuring the dispersal of your assets according to your wishes. The distribution of many of your financial assets – such as life insurance policies or 401K and IRA accounts – would be governed by who you named as a beneficiary. It’s extremely important for you to keep your beneficiaries up to date because life circumstances change. You may or may not be pleased if your ex-spouse inherits your life insurance policy, but if you haven’t changed the designated beneficiary, that could happen.

Update your beneficiaries for insurance policies and retirement plans


As you gather your year-end documents for tax preparation, there is one important financial item that should be included: checking your insurance policies and other important financial records and plans to ensure that your designated beneficiaries are up to date. It’s a good idea to review beneficiaries annually because life events may have changed your situation. Parents die, marriages dissolve, children are born, and any of these events may warrant a change in beneficiaries. Failing to periodically update your beneficiaries could have unintended consequences – you might not want a former spouse rather than your current spouse to be the beneficiary of your assets but that could happen!
Here are some best practices when naming beneficiaries:
Always name a beneficiary. People who have wills often think they have their beneficiaries covered, but this assumption can be wrong. Generally, beneficiaries named in insurance policies and retirement plans will take precedence over any instructions you leave in your will. Make sure you have specified individuals as beneficiaries in your policies and plans. People often name their “estate” as the beneficiary but this can lead to benefits being tied up in probate court. Failure to name a beneficiary may also mean that you miss out on certain plan or policy advantages. For example, if you name an estate as beneficiary, an IRA will be liquidated on your death and taxes will be due. If your spouse is named as beneficiary, he or she could potentially continue to enjoy tax-free growth.
Be specific. Avoid ambiguous language. Simply stating “my husband” or “my niece” may not be sufficient, particularly in instances of multiple marriages. It’s a good idea to use full names of intended beneficiaries to avoid potential confusion or disputes.
Name a secondary beneficiary. Make sure that it will be you and not your state law that determines who will be the recipient of your policy benefits. If your primary beneficiary should pass away and you have not named a secondary or contingent beneficiary, your insurance policy or retirement plan will be distributed according to your will. If you have no will, the decision will default to state law.
Keep important records in a secure place and tell a trusted family member what and where they are. Many people die suddenly without leaving instructions as to where a will, insurance papers and other important records are kept. All too often, benefits go unclaimed because family members don’t know about potential benefits or can’t find important account information. Bank accounts and insurance policies are overlooked. Make sure someone in your family is familiar with your most important records and where they are kept.
Further reading:
Are your beneficiaries up to date?
Update your beneficiaries
Life Insurance: Reviewing Your Policy Important to Securing Your Family’s Future
Insurance Beneficiaries