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Saving What Matters: 12 Must-Have Items To Pack in Your Go-Bag

It’s the middle of the night. The authorities just notified you that you have 20 minutes to evacuate your home before a raging wildfire cuts off the exit from your neighborhood, leaving you trapped. The fire is advancing at the rate of a football field every second, so the actions you take in the next few moments will determine whether you and your family live or die. 

While this may sound like a scene from a blockbuster disaster movie, it’s the very scenario Judy Shannon faced in December 2017. And it’s something we can expect to see more and more as the impact of climate change sets in.

Judy was at home with her two young children, her elderly mother, and a puppy, when an out-of-control wildfire threatened to engulf her Ventura County home in Southern California. Fortunately, she and her family escaped without injury. But her home, her neighborhood, and hundreds of other buildings in the area were burned to the ground. Shopping for supplies in the aftermath, Judy reflected on whether she could have done more to ensure her family’s safety in those last moments before evacuating.

“As I look back, I wonder, ‘Did I do enough?’” Judy recalled. “I can honestly say I didn’t have much choice in those 20 minutes. I responded without much thought and felt a sense of being carried, or moved about, with each step.” Judy highlights a critical aspect of facing such life-threatening emergencies: You won’t have time to think; you must be prepared to act and act fast. Your life and the lives of those in your family absolutely depend on it.

Be ready to go
With natural disasters like wildfires, floods, and hurricanes becoming more frequent and destructive with every passing year, the need for you to be ready to act is more pressing than ever. And as Judy’s story highlights, when you have mere minutes to evacuate, you won’t have time to think about what you should bring with you to survive the days—or weeks—to come.

To be optimally prepared, take a cue from the U.S. military and police agencies. These organizations require their members to always have a “go-bag” on-hand packed with the essential items needed to survive for at least three days following a disaster.

While numerous online retailers sell fully equipped go-bags for such emergencies, and both FEMA and the American Red Cross provide checklists to help you pack your own, here we offer a basic summary of the most-recommended supplies.

This list should give you some idea of what items you should have ready to go in case you need to get out of your home within minutes.

1) ID and other essential documents:
Bring copies of your passport, driver’s license, and/or state ID card and store them in a sealed Ziplock bag. Other documents to consider packing include the deed to your home, vehicle titles/registration, printed maps, and a recent family photo with faces clearly visible for easy identification.

2) Cash: Carry at least $250 in relatively small bills and keep it with your ID in a waterproof bag.

3) Shelter: A lightweight tent, along with mylar emergency blankets can help keep you warm and dry.

4) Water and a water filter: You’ll need at least one gallon of water per person per day. Bring as much bottled water as possible, but also include a water purification straw and/or purification tablets, along with a steel container to boil water in.

5) A multi-tool: These modern-day Swiss Army knives come with a wide array of essential tools, from a knife and screwdriver to tweezers and a can opener.

6) First-aid kit and prescription medications: Whether you buy one ready-made or pack your own, the likelihood of injury skyrockets in the wake disasters, so not having a first-aid kit can be deadly. And don’t forget to include prescription medications and other life-sustaining medical supplies if needed.

7) Light: Flashlights with extra batteries are great, but headlamps are even better because they’re ultra-compact and leave your hands free.

8) An emergency whistle: Emergency whistles can alert rescue crews and help locate others in low-visibility conditions.

9) Solar-powered emergency radio and cellphone charger: Without power, you’ll need a way to stay in touch with the outside world. Today you can find devices that include a combination radio, cell-phone charger, and flashlight all in one, with the extra option of hand-cranked power to keep things charged even in the dark.

10) Sanitary items: Pack toilet paper, baby wipes, hand sanitizer, soap, as well as tampons and/or pads if needed.

11) Clothes: You only need enough clothes to keep you warm and comfortable for a few days, so don’t try to bring your entire wardrobe. Stick to essentials like underwear, socks, extra shoes, a jacket, a poncho, a hat, and gloves. You’ll need to tailor your clothing to the climate and region you live in, so colder locations may require extra outerwear.

12) Food: Focus on high-protein, high-caloric foods that will give you the energy you need to live and get from point A to point B. The most recommended options include, energy bars, MREs (Meals-Ready-to-Eat), freeze-dried survival food, and meal-replacement shakes.

Stay totally safe and secure
While go-bags are a critical part of helping your family survive the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster or other emergency, they’re just a start. For instance, this list doesn’t address any of your precious sentimental items, such as photos, old love letters, and treasured cards from the past. Nor does it mention estate planning documents or insurance policies.

Copies of your insurance policies and estate planning documents items should be uploaded to the cloud and stored online. You should also store sentimental items, like family histories and photos online, so you don’t have to worry about packing any of that in the event of a natural disaster. Safely storing your sentimental items online is so important, we offer this as a service to our clients, so be sure to ask us about that.

Of course, to keep your family totally safe and secure, you’ll need to make sure you have the right insurance coverage and necessary legal documents in place to cover every possible emergency contingency. Contact us as your Personal Family Lawyer® to learn exactly what you need and how we can support you.

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, ™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

Think Your Homeowners Insurance Offers Protection From Natural Disasters? Think Again!

From wildfires in California and hurricanes in Texas to floods in West Virginia, hardly any area of the U.S. is immune from the threat of natural disasters. And according to a report released by the government regarding climate change and its impact on Black Friday, it’s only going to get worse. Despite this threat, many homeowners still lack the insurance needed to protect their property and possessions from such catastrophes.

In fact, roughly two-thirds of all homeowners are underinsured for natural disasters, according to United Policyholders (UP), a nonprofit organization for insurance consumers. One contributing factor to this lack of coverage is the mistaken belief that homeowners insurance offers protection from such calamities. In reality, natural disasters are typically not covered by standard homeowners policies.

In order to obtain protection, you often need to purchase separate policies that cover specific types of natural disasters. Here, we’ve highlighted the types of insurance coverage available and how the policies work.

Wildfires
While homeowners insurance typically doesn’t pay for damage caused by natural disasters, most policies do protect against fire damage, including wildfires like the recent ones in California. The only instances of fire damage homeowners policies won’t cover are fires caused by arson or when fire destroys a home that’s been vacant for at least 30 days when the fire occurred.

That said, not all homeowners policies are created equal, so you should check your policy to make certain that it includes enough coverage to do three things: replace your home’s structure, replace your belongings, and cover your living expenses while your home is being repaired, known as “loss of use” coverage.

In certain areas that are extremely high-risk for wildfires, it  can be difficult to find a company to insure your home. In such cases, you should look into state-sponsored fire insurance like California’s FAIR Plan.

Earthquakes
Unlike fires, earthquakes are typically not covered by homeowners policies. To protect your home against quakes, you’ll need a freestanding earthquake insurance policy. And contrary to popular belief, Californians aren’t the only ones who should be worried.

Most parts of the U.S. are at some risk for earthquakes. Indeed, the U.S. Geological Survey found that between the 20 years from 1975 to 1995 earthquakes occurred in every state except Florida, Iowa, North Dakota, and Wisconsin. To gauge the risk in your area, consult with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) earthquake hazard map.

While earthquake insurance is available practically everywhere, policies in high-risk areas typically come with high deductibles, ranging from 10% to 15% of the home’s value. What’s more, though earthquake insurance covers damage directly caused by the quake, some related damages such as flooding are likely not covered. Carefully review your policy to see what’s included—and what’s not.

Floods
Though homeowners insurance generally covers flood damage caused by faulty infrastructure like leaky pipes, nearly all policies exclude flood damage caused by natural events like heavy rain, overflowing rivers, and hurricanes. You’ll need stand-alone flood insurance to protect your property and possessions from these events.

The threat from flooding is so widespread, Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) in 1968, which allows homeowners in flood-prone areas to purchase flood insurance backed by the U.S. government. In some coastal regions, especially where hurricanes are prevalent, you might even be required to buy flood insurance. To determine the risk for your property, consult FEMA’s Flood Map service center.

Even if you live in a location where flood insurance isn’t required, you may want to consider buying it anyway. Indeed, 90% of all natural disasters include some form of flooding, and more than 20% of flood-damage claims come from properties outside high-risk flood zones.

Hurricanes and Tornadoes
Most homeowners policies do offer coverage for wind-related damage. However, it depends on the type of storm that caused the damage. For example, wind damage from tornadoes and even some tropical storms is typically covered, but wind damage from hurricanes generally requires a separate windstorm policy, or in some cases, a hurricane rider.

Because damage from hurricanes is often measured in the billions, these windstorm policies usually have higher deductibles that are often based on a percentage of your home’s value, instead of a fixed dollar amount. Some policies also come with a cap on coverage, so be sure to review exactly what type and amount of coverage your policy offers.

Of course, high winds aren’t the only threat posed by hurricanes. Such tropical systems can also cause severe flooding, which is frequently the storm’s most damaging element. But as mentioned before, whether it’s caused by a hurricane or a tornado, flooding is not generally covered by homeowners insurance. For flood protection, you’ll need to purchase a separate flood insurance policy through the NFIP.

Get the disaster coverage you need today
To make certain you have the necessary insurance coverage to protect your home and belongings from natural disasters, consult with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®. We’ll help evaluate the specific risks for your area, assess the value of your assets, and support you to determine the optimal levels of insurance you should have in place.

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala P.C., Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, ™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

Don’t Forget to Include Your Digital Assets In Your Estate Plan—Part 2

In the first part of this series, we discussed the importance of including your digital assets in your estate plan. http://rantala.com/blog/2018/11/20/dont-forget-to-include-your-digital-assets-in-your-estate-plan-part-1/

Here, we’ll talk about the best ways to get started with this process. 

Today, estate planning encompasses not just tangible property like finances and real estate, but also digital assets like cryptocurrency, blogs, and social media. With so much of our lives now lived online, it’s vital you put the proper estate planning provisions in place to ensure your digital assets are effectively protected and passed on in the event of your incapacity or death.

However, because many types of online assets have only been in existence for a handful of years, there are very few laws governing how they should be dealt with through estate planning. And due to their virtual and often anonymous nature, just locating and accessing some of these assets can be extremely difficult for those you leave behind.

Given these unique challenges, last week we discussed some of the most common types of digital assets and the legal landscape surrounding them. Here, we offer some practical tips to ensure all your digital property is effectively incorporated into your estate plan.

Best practices for including digital assets in your estate plan
If you’re like most people, you probably own numerous digital assets, some of which likely have significant monetary and/or sentimental value. Other types of online property may have no value for anyone other than yourself or be something you’d prefer your family and friends not access or inherit.

To ensure all your digital assets are accounted for, managed, and passed on in exactly the way you want, you should take the following steps:

Create an inventory: Start by creating a list of all your digital assets, including the related login information and passwords. Password management apps such as LastPass can help simplify this effort. From there, store the list in a secure location, and provide detailed instructions to your fiduciary about how to access it and get into the accounts. Just like money you’ve hidden in a safe, if no one knows where it is or how to unlock it, these assets will likely be lost forever.

Back up assets stored in the cloud: If any of your digital assets are stored in the cloud, back them up to a computer and/or other physical storage device on a regular basis, so fiduciaries and family members can access them with fewer obstacles. That said, don’t forget to also include the location and login info of these cloud-based assets in case you don’t have a chance—or forget—to back them all up.

Add your digital assets to your estate plan: Include specific instructions in your will, trust, and/or other estate planning documents about the heir(s) you want to inherit each asset, along with how you’d like the accounts managed in the future, if that’s an option. Some assets might be of no value to your family or be something you don’t want them to access, so you should specify that those accounts and files be closed and/or deleted by your fiduciary. Do NOT provide the specific account info, logins, or passwords in your estate planning documents, which can be easily read by others. This is especially true for wills, which become public record upon your death. Keep this information stored in a secure place, and let your fiduciary know how to find and use it. Consider a service such as Directive Communication Systems to support you here. It’s also a good idea to include terms in your estate plan allowing your fiduciary to hire an IT consultant if necessary. This will help him or her manage and troubleshoot any technical challenges that come up, particularly with highly complex and/or encrypted assets.

Limit access: In your plan, you should also include instructions for your fiduciary about what level of access you want him or her to have. For example, do you want your executor to be able to read all of your emails and social media posts before deleting them or passing them on to your heirs? If there are any assets you want to limit access to, we can help you include the necessary terms in your plan to ensure your privacy is honored.

Include relevant hardware: Don’t forget that your estate plan should also include provisions for any physical devices—smartphones, computers, tablets, flash drives—on which the digital assets are stored. Having quick access to this equipment will make it much easier for your fiduciary to access, manage, and transfer the online assets. Since the data can be wiped clean, you can even leave these devices to someone other than the person who inherits the digital property stored on it.

Check service providers’ access-authorization tools: Carefully review the terms and conditions for your online accounts. Some service providers like Google, Facebook, and Instagram have tools in place that allow you to easily designate access to others in the event of your death. If such a function is offered, use it to document who you want to have access to these accounts.  Just make certain the people you named to inherit your digital assets using the providers’ access-authorization tools match those you’ve named in your estate plan. If not, the provider will probably give priority access to the person named with its tool, not your estate plan.


Truly comprehensive estate planning
With technology rapidly evolving, it’s critical that your estate planning strategies evolve at the same time to adapt to this changing environment. With us as your Personal Family Lawyer®, we can help you update your plan to include not only your physical wealth and property, but all your digital assets, too.

We know how valuable online property can be, and unlike many lawyers, we have the experience and skills to ensure these assets are preserved and passed on seamlessly.
Moreover, we can do this while respecting and protecting your privacy rights. Contact us today to get started.

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, ™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

Don’t Forget to Include Your Digital Assets In Your Estate Plan—Part 1

If you’ve created an estate plan, it likely includes traditional wealth and assets like finances, real estate, personal property, and family heirlooms. But unless your plan also includes your digital assets, there’s a good chance this online property will be lost forever following your death or incapacity. 

What’s more, even if these assets are included in your plan, unless your executor and/or trustee knows the accounts exist and how to access them, you risk burdening your family and friends with the often lengthy and expensive process of locating and accessing them. And depending on the terms of service governing your online accounts, your heirs may not be able to inherit some types of digital assets at all.

With our lives increasingly being lived online, our digital assets can be quite extensive and extremely valuable. Given this, it’s more important than ever that your estate plan includes detailed provisions to protect and pass on such property in the event of your incapacity or death.

Types of digital assets

Digital assets generally fall into two categories: those with financial value and those with sentimental value.

Those with financial value typically include cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, online payment accounts like PayPal, domain names, websites and blogs generating revenue, as well as other works like photos, videos, music, and writing that generate royalties. Such assets have real financial worth for your heirs, not only in the immediate aftermath of your death or incapacity, but potentially for years to come.

Digital assets with sentimental value include email accounts, photos, video, music, publications, social media accounts, apps, and websites or blogs with no revenue potential. While this type of property typically won’t be of any monetary value, it can offer incredible sentimental value and comfort for your family when you’re no longer around.

Owned vs licensed
Though you might not know it, you don’t actually own many of your digital assets at all. For example, you do own certain assets like cryptocurrency and PayPal accounts, so you can transfer ownership of these in a will or trust. But when you purchase some digital property, such as Kindle e-books and iTunes music files, all you really own is a license to use it. And in many cases, that license is for your personal use only and is non-transferable.

Whether or not you can transfer such licensed property depends almost entirely on the account’s Terms of Service Agreements (TOSA) to which you agreed (or more likely, simply clicked a box without reading) upon opening the account. While many TOSA restrict access to accounts only to the original user, some allow access by heirs or executors in certain situations, while others say nothing about transferability. Carefully review the TOSA of your online accounts to see whether you own the asset itself or just a license to use it. If the TOSA states the asset is licensed, not owned, and offers no method for transferring your license, you’ll likely have no way to pass the asset to anyone else, even if it’s included in your estate plan.

To make matters more complicated, though you heirs may be able to access your digital assets if you’ve provided them with your account login and passwords, doing so may actually violate the TOSA and/or privacy laws. In order to legally access such accounts, your heirs will have to prove they have the right to access it, a process which up until recently was a major legal grey area.

Fortunately, a growing number of states are adopting a law that helps clarify how your digital assets can be accessed in the event if your death or incapacity.

The Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act
The Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, which has been adopted in 37 states so far, lays out guidelines under which fiduciaries, such as executors and trustees, can access these digital accounts. The Act allows you to grant a fiduciary access to your digital accounts upon your death or incapacity, either by opting them in with an online tool furnished by the service provider or through your estate plan.

The Act offers three-tiers for prioritizing access. The first tier gives priority to the online provider’s access-authorization tool for handling accounts of a decedent. For example, Google’s “inactive account manager” tool lets you choose who can access and manage your account after you pass away. Facebook has a similar tool that allows you to designate someone as a “legacy contact” to manage your personal profile.

If an online tool is not available or if the decedent did not use it, the law’s second tier gives priority to directions given by the decedent in a will, trust, power of attorney, or other means. If no such instructions are provided, then the third tier stipulates the provider’s TOSA will govern access.

As long as you use the provider’s online tool—if one is available—and/or include instructions in your estate plan, your digital assets should be accessible per your wishes in states that have adopted the law. However, all 50 states are expected to adopt the Act soon, so even if the law isn’t on the books in your state, you should take it into serious consideration when planning.

Look to us for guidance
In the second part of this series, we’ll offer practical steps for preserving and passing on your digital assets in your estate plan. Meanwhile, contact us as your Personal Family Lawyer® if you have any questions about your online property or how to include it in your estate plan.

Next week, we’ll continue with part two in this series, discussing the best ways to protect and preserve your digital assets through estate planning.

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, ™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

How to Fix Errors in Your Credit Report

While some of those TV commercials for free credit-score report companies are pretty funny, having errors on your credit report is no laughing matter. Indeed, your credit score is one of the main factors determining your access to loans, credit cards, housing, and sometimes even jobs.

From late payments that were actually made on time and paid debts that are still listed in collections to fake accounts opened in your name by identity thieves, there are all kinds of errors that can end up in your report. What’s more, even if the mistakes were made by the banks, lenders, and/or credit bureaus, they have no obligation to fix them—unless you report them.

Given this, it’s vital to monitor your credit score regularly and take immediate action to have any errors corrected. Here, we’ll discuss a few of the most common mistakes found in credit reports and how to fix them.

Finding and fixing errors
The first step to ensure your credit report stays error-free is to obtain a copy of your report from each of the three major credit-reporting agencies: Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. You can get free access to your reports and even helpful credit monitoring services from companies like CreditKarma.com.

Check each of the reports closely for errors. Some of the most common mistakes include:

Misspellings and other errors in your name, address, and/or Social Security number
Accounts that are mistakenly reported more than once
Loan inquiries you didn’t authorize
Payments inadvertently applied to the wrong account or noted as unpaid, when they were in fact paid
Old debts that have been paid off or should’ve been removed from your report after seven years
Fake accounts and debts created by identity thieves

Filing a dispute
If anything is inaccurate on your report, file a dispute with the credit bureaus as soon as possible. In fact, notifying these agencies is a prerequisite if you eventually decide to take legal action. Note that if a mistake appears on more than one report, you’ll need to file a dispute with each credit bureau involved.

To ensure your dispute has the best chances of success, follow these steps:

  • Use the appropriate forms: Each credit bureau has different processes for filing a dispute—whether via regular mail or online—so check the particular bureau’s website for instructions and forms. You can find sample letters showing how to dispute credit reports on the FTC and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) websites.
  • Be absolutely clear: Clearly identify each disputed item in your report, state the facts explaining why the information is incorrect, and request a deletion or correction. If you’ve found multiple errors, include an itemized list of each one.
  • Provide evidence: It’s not enough to just say there’s a mistake; you should substantiate your claim with proof. Collect all documents related to the account, including account statements, letters, emails, and legal correspondence. Include copies (never originals) of this paperwork and highlight or circle the relevant information.
  • Contact credit providers: In addition to the credit bureaus, the CFPB recommends you also contact the credit providers that supplied the incorrect information to the bureaus. Check with the company to learn how to file a dispute, and then send it the same documentation to them that you sent to the bureaus.
  • Review the results of the investigation: Credit bureaus typically get back to you within a month, but their response can take up to 45 days. The response will tell you if the disputed item was deleted, fixed, or remains the same. Disputes basically boil down to whether or not the creditor agrees with your claim, and what they say typically goes.

If you’re not happy with the result of the dispute or how the dispute was handled, you can file a complaint with the CFPB, which regulates the credit bureaus. They’ll forward your complaint to the credit provider and update you on the response they receive. If the credit provider insists the information is accurate, you can provide the bureaus with a statement summarizing your dispute and request they include it in your file, in future reports, and to anyone who received a copy of the old report in the recent past.

Legal action
Finally, if the investigation isn’t resolved to your satisfaction and the inaccurate information in your credit report is causing you harm, contact us to determine if taking legal action would be worthwhile. We can review the information, and if necessary, help you develop and litigate your case.

With us as your Personal Family Lawyer®, we can help get your credit in top shape by guiding you to put the proper legal, insurance, financial, and tax systems in place to secure your family’s financial future. Contact us today to get started.

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, ™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

Use Estate Planning to Enrich Your Family With More Than Just Material Wealth

In the weeks before her death from ovarian cancer, author Amy Krouse Rosenthal gave her husband Jason one of the most treasured gifts a person could receive. 

She penned the touching essay “You May Want to Marry My Husband” in the New York Times as a final love letter to him. The essay took the form of a heart-wrenching yet-humorous dating profile that encouraged him to begin dating again once she was gone. In her opening description of Jason, she writes: “He is an easy man to fall in love with. I did it in one day.”

What followed was an intimate list of attributes and anecdotes, highlighting what she loved most about Jason. It reads like a love story, encompassing 26 years of marriage, three grown children, and a bond that will last forever. She finished the essay on Valentine’s Day, concluding with:

“The most genuine, non-vase-oriented gift I can hope for is that the right person reads this, finds Jason, and another love story begins.”

Just 10 days after the essay was published in March 2017, Amy died at age 51.

Finding meaning again
Amy’s essay immediately went viral, and Jason received countless letters from women across the globe. Although he has yet to begin a new relationship, Jason said the outpouring of letters gave him “solace and even laughter” in the darkest days following his wife’s death.

Just over a year later, Jason wrote his own essay for the Times, “My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me,” in which he expressed how grateful he was for Amy’s words and recounted the lessons he’d learned about loss and grief since her passing.

He said his wife’s parting gift “continues to open doors for me, to affect my choices, to send me off into the world to make the most of it.” Jason has since given a TED Talk on his grieving process in hopes of helping others deal with loss, something he said he never would’ve done without Amy’s motivation.

Toward the end of his essay, Jason gave readers a bit of advice for how they can provide their loved ones with a similar gift:  “Talk with your mate, your children, and other loved ones about what you want for them when you are gone,” he wrote. “By doing this, you give them liberty to live a full life and eventually find meaning again.”

Preserving your intangible assets
This moving story highlights what could be the most valuable, yet often-overlooked aspect of estate planning. Planning isn’t just about preserving and passing on your financial wealth and property in the event of your death or incapacity. When done right, it equates to sharing your family’s stories, values, life lessons, and experiences, so your legacy carries on long after you are gone.

Indeed, as the Rosenthals demonstrate, these intangible assets can be among the most profound gifts you can give. Of course, not everyone has the talent or time to write a similarly moving essay or have it published in the New York Times, nor is that necessary.

We recognize the enormous value these assets represent, along with the inherent challenge of documenting our life experiences. Given this, in our estate plans, we’ve built in a process, known as Family Wealth Legacy Passages, for preserving and passing on your unique treasures and gifts.

Family Wealth Legacy Passages
Our Family Wealth Legacy Passages (included in all of our estate plans) guide you to create a customized recording in which you share your most insightful memories and life lessons with those you leave behind.

We’ve developed a series of helpful questions and prompts to make the process of sharing your life experiences not only easy, but enjoyable. And this isn’t something you have to do on your own—which you know you wouldn’t get around to—as we do it with you as an integral part of your planning services.

In the end, your family’s most precious wealth is not money, but the memories you make, the values you instill, and the lessons you hand down. And left to chance, these assets are likely to be lost forever.

If you want to pass down a truly meaningful legacy, one that can provide the kind of inspiration Amy’s letter did for Jason, contact us as your Personal Family Lawyer®. Our customized estate planning services will preserve and pass on not only your financial wealth, but your most treasured family values as well. Start by scheduling a Family Wealth Planning Session, where we’ll discuss what kind of assets you have, what matters most to you, and what you want to leave behind.

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, ™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

3 Deadly Sins of Retirement Planning

Retirement planning is one of life’s most important financial goals. Indeed, funding retirement is one of the primary reasons many people put money aside in the first place. Yet many of us put more effort into planning for our vacations than we do to prepare for a time when we may no longer earn an income.

Whether you’ve put off planning for retirement altogether or failed to create a truly comprehensive plan, you’re putting yourself at risk for a future of poverty, penny pinching, and dependence. The stakes could hardly be higher. When preparing for your final years, it’s not enough to simply hope for the best. You should treat retirement planning as if your life depended on it—because it does. To this end, even well-thought-out plans can contain fatal flaws you might not be aware of until it’s too late.

Have you committed any of the following three deadly sins of retirement planning? 


Not having an actual plan
Even if you’ve been diligent about saving for retirement, without a detailed, goal-oriented plan, you’ll have no clear idea whether your savings strategies are working adequately or not. And such plans aren’t just about calculating a retirement savings number, funding your 401(k), and then setting things on auto-pilot.  Once you know how much you’ll need for retirement, you have to plan for exactly how you’ll accumulate that money and monitor your success. The plan should include clear-cut methods for increasing income, reducing spending, maximizing tax savings, and managing investments when and where needed. What’s more, you should regularly review and update your asset allocation, investment performance, and savings goals to ensure you’re still on track to hit your target figure. With each new decade of your life (at least), you should adjust your savings strategies to match the specific needs of your new income level and age. The plan should also take into consideration unforeseen contingencies, such as downturns in the economy, health emergencies, layoffs, and inflation. Failing to plan, as they say, is planning to fail.

 

Not maximizing the use of tax-saving retirement accounts
One way or another, the money you put aside for retirement is going to be taxed. However, by investing in tax-saving retirement accounts, you can significantly reduce the amount of taxes you’ll pay. Depending on your employment and financial situation, there are numerous different plans available. From traditional IRAs and 401(k)s to Roth IRAs and SEP Plans, you should consider using one or more of these investment vehicles to ensure you achieve the most tax savings possible.  What’s more, many employers will match your contributions to these accounts, which is basically free money. If your employer offers matching funds, you should not only use these accounts, but contribute the maximum amount allowed—and do so as early as possible. Since figuring out which of these plans will offer the most tax savings can be tricky—and because tax laws are constantly changing—you should consult with us and a professional financial advisor to find the one(s) best suited for your particular situation. Paying taxes is unavoidable, but there’s no reason you should pay any more than you absolutely have to.

Underestimating health-care costs
One of the most frequent mistakes people make when planning for retirement is assuming that things will always stay the same. Whether it’s tax laws, inflation, market conditions, or marital status, if you don’t carefully consider how your circumstances might change with time, you’re putting yourself and your savings at serious risk. While many such contingencies are mere possibilities, the one thing that’s certain to change with time is your body and mind. It’s an inescapable fact that our health naturally declines with age, so one of the riskiest things you can do is not plan for increased health-care expenses. With many employers eliminating retiree health-care coverage, Medicare premiums rising, and the extremely volatile nature of health insurance law, planning for your future health-care expenses is critical. It’s even more important seeing that we’re now living longer than ever before. Plus, these considerations are assuming that you don’t fall victim to a catastrophic illness or accident. The natural aging process is expensive enough to manage, but a serious health-care emergency can wipe out even the most financially well off.

But with so many unknowns, how can you possibly prepare for every possible scenario?
The truth is, you can’t. That said, you should take advantage of every available precaution within your means. This might mean delaying retirement, purchasing supplemental insurance, investing in long-term care insurance, opening a Health Savings Account, or some combination of these options. We can advise you on precautions that are right for you and your family.

Start preparing for retirement now
The best way to maximize your retirement funding is to start planning (and saving) as soon as possible. In fact, your retirement savings can be exponentially increased simply by starting to plan at an early age.

No matter your age, income, or asset value, with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®, we can help you put the legal, insurance, financial, and tax systems (LIFT) in place to ensure you’re prepared for a thriving future. Contact us to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session today to get started. We’ll review what you have in place now, what you need, introduce you to advisors you can trust, and ensure you and your family are well-protected and planned for, no matter what.

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, ™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

When Something is NOT Better Than Nothing—Part 2

Last week, we shared the first part of this series discussing the hidden dangers of do-it-yourself estate planning. In part two, we cover one of the greatest risks posed by DIY documents. http://rantala.com/blog/2018/10/16/when-something-is-not-better-than-nothing-part-1/ 

You might think you can save time and money by using do-it-yourself estate planning documents you find online. You’re probably anxious to check estate planning off your life’s to-do list, and these forms offer a seemingly quick and inexpensive way to handle this important task. You may even realize such generic plans aren’t as high quality as those drafted with an attorney’s help, but with your hectic schedule, a DIY will is just way more convenient. Besides, having “something” in place is better than having nothing, right?

Unfortunately, this is one case in which SOMETHING is not better than nothing.

Indeed, the false sense of security offered by DIY wills can lead you to believe you have things covered and no longer have to worry about estate planning. The reality, however, is that such generic forms could end up costing the loved ones you leave behind more money and heartache than if you’d never gotten around to doing anything at all.

In this way, DIY wills and other legal documents are among the most dangerous choices you can make for the people you love. In part one, we discussed the many ways DIY plans can fail to keep your family out of court and out of conflict, and here we’ll explain how these generic documents can leave the people you love most of all—your children—at risk.

The people you love most
It’s probably distressing to think that by using a DIY will you could force your loved ones into court or conflict in the event of your incapacity or death. And if you’re like most parents, it’s probably downright unimaginable to contemplate your children’s care falling into the wrong hands.

Yet that’s exactly what could happen if you rely on free or low-cost fill-in-the-blank wills found online, or even if you hire a lawyer who isn’t equipped or trained to plan for the needs of parents with minor children.

Naming and legally documenting guardians entail several complexities that most people aren’t aware of. Even lawyers with decades of experience frequently make at least one of six common errors when naming long-term legal guardians. If wills drafted with the help of a professional are likely to leave your children at risk, the chances that you’ll get things right on your own are pretty much zero.

What could go wrong?
If your DIY will names legal guardians for your kids in the event of your death, that’s great. But does it include back-ups? And if you named a couple to serve, how is that handled? Do you still want one of them if the other is unavailable due to illness, injury, death, or divorce? And what happens if you become incapacitated and are unable to care for your children? You might assume the guardians named in the DIY will would automatically get custody, but your will isn’t even operative in the event of your incapacity. Or perhaps the guardians you named in the will live far from your home, so it would take them a few days to get there. If you haven’t made legally-binding arrangements for the immediate care of your children, it’s highly likely that they will be placed with child protective services until those guardians arrive.

Even if you name family who live nearby as guardians, your kids are still at risk because it’s possible they might not be immediately available when needed. And who even knows where your will is or how to access it? There are simply far too many potential errors you can make when you go it alone.

The Kids Protection Plan®
To ensure your children are never raised by someone you don’t trust or taken into the custody of strangers (even temporarily), consider creating  a comprehensive Kids Protection Plan®, which only Personal Family Lawyers® like us are trained and licensed to counsel you through and prepare.

This is so important, we’ve even created an easy-to-use (and absolutely free) website you can visit right now to take the first steps in creating the proper legal documents naming the long-term guardians you’d want to care for your children if you could not. https://mariannesrantalapc.kidsprotectionplan.com/

If you have minor children at home, you should immediately use this resource to get started, and then schedule a follow-up visit with us to put the full Kids Protection Plan® in place.

Get the right “something”
Protecting your family and assets in the event of your death or incapacity is such a monumentally important task you should never consider winging it with a DIY plan. No matter how busy you are or how little wealth you own, the potentially disastrous consequences inherent in such plans are simply too great—often they’re not even worth the paper they’re printed on.

Plus, proper estate planning doesn’t have to be super expensive, stressful, or time consuming. Working with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®, planning will not only be as stress-free as possible, but we offer options for all budgets and asset values.

What’s more, many of our clients find the process highly rewarding. Our proprietary systems provide the type of peace of mind that comes from knowing that you’ve not only checked estate planning off your to-do list, but you’ve done it using the most forethought, experience, and knowledge available.

Act now
If you’ve yet to do any planning, contact us to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session. This evaluation will allow us to determine if a simple will or some other strategy, such as a living trust, is your best option.

If you’ve already created a plan—whether it’s a DIY job or one created with another lawyer’s help—contact us to schedule an Estate Plan Review and Check-Up. We’ll ensure your plan is not only properly drafted and updated, but that it has all of the protections in place to prevent your children from ever being placed in the care of strangers or anyone you’d never want to raise them.

No matter what you do, make certain you have a “something” that’s better than nothing. Contact us as your Personal Family Lawyer® today, and we’ll provide you with that level of confidence—and so much more.

This article is a service of Marianne S., Rantala, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, ™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

When Something is NOT Better Than Nothing—Part 1

Go online, and you’ll find tons of websites offering do-it-yourself estate planning documents. Such forms are typically quite inexpensive. Simple wills, for example, are often priced under $50, and you can complete and print them out in a matter of minutes.

In our uber-busy lives and DIY culture, it’s no surprise that this kind of thing might seem like a good deal. You know estate planning is important, and even though you may not be getting the highest quality plan, such documents can make you feel better for having checked this item off your life’s lengthy to-do list.

But this is one case in which SOMETHING is not better than nothing, and here’s why:

A false sense of security
Creating a DIY will online can lead you to believe that you no longer have to worry about estate planning. You got it done, right?

Except that you didn’t. In fact, you thought you “got it done” because you went online, printed a form, and had it notarized, but you didn’t bother to investigate what would happen with that document in place in the event of your incapacity or when you die.

In the end, what seemed like a bargain could end up costing your family more money and heartache than if you’d never gotten around to doing anything at all. Creating a DIY will can lead you to believe that you no longer have to worry about estate planning. In the back of your mind, you might even promise that one day you’ll revisit and update your plan with something better, but chances are, having done “something” will lead you to put this off until it’s too late. By doing nothing, on the other hand, at least you won’t be lulled into a false sense of security, and estate planning will still be at the top of your life’s to-do list, as it should be until you handle it properly.

Not just about filling out forms
Unfortunately, because many people don’t understand that estate planning entails much more than just filling out legal documents, they end up making serious mistakes with DIY plans. Worst of all, these mistakes are only discovered when you become incapacitated or die, and it’s too late. The people left to deal with your mistakes are often the very ones you were trying to do right by.

The primary purpose of wills and other estate planning tools is to keep your family out of court and out of conflict in the event of your death or incapacity. With the growing popularity of DIY wills, tens of thousands of families (and millions more to come) have learned the hard way that trying to handle estate planning alone cannot only fail to fulfill this purpose, it can make the court cases and conflicts far worse and more expensive.

The hidden dangers of DIY wills
From the specific state you live in and the wording of the document to the required formalities for how it must be signed and witnessed, there are numerous potential dangers involved with DIY wills and other estate planning documents. Estate planning is most definitely not a one-size-fits-all deal. Even if you think you have a simple situation, that’s almost never the case.

The following scenarios are just a few of the most common complications that can result from attempting to go it alone with a DIY will:

  • Improper execution: For a will to be valid, it must be executed (i.e. signed and witnessed or notarized) following strict legal procedures. Such procedural requirements are designed to prevent foul play and vary by state. For example, many states require that you and every witness to your will must sign it in the presence of one another. If your DIY will doesn’t mention that or you don’t read the fine print and fail to follow this procedure, it can be worthless.
  • Court challenges: Before the assets covered in a will can be transferred to your heirs, the will must go through the court process called probate. During probate, creditors, heirs, and other interested parties can contest your will or make claims against your estate. Though wills created with an attorney’s guidance can also be contested, DIY wills are not only far more likely to be challenged, but the chances of those challenges being successful are much greater than if you have an attorney-drafted will.
  • Thinking a will is enough: It is almost never the case that a will alone is enough to handle all of your legal affairs. In the event of your incapacity, you would also need a health care directive, and/or a living will plus a durable financial power of attorney. In the event of your death, a will does nothing to keep your loved one’s out of court. And if you have minor children, having a will alone could leave your kids at risk of being taken out of your home and into the care of strangers, at least temporarily.

In many ways, DIY will planning is the worst choice you can make for the people you love because you think you’ve got it covered, when you most certainly do not.

Next week, we’ll continue with part two in this series on the hidden dangers of DIY estate planning.

If you’ve yet to do any estate planning at all, have DIY documents you aren’t sure about, or have a plan created with another lawyer’s help that hasn’t been updated or reviewed in more than a few years, meet with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®. We can ensure that your family will be kept out of court and out of conflict if something should happen to you. Contact us today to learn more.

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala P.C., Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, ™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.

To Live a Happier Life, Start Thinking About Death Now

Want to know a proven way to live a more fulfilling life? All you have to do is fully accept the fact that one day you’re going to die.

“I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.” -Upajjhatthana Sutta 

The unavoidable nature of death is a basic tenet found in every religion. Indeed, the acceptance of death is so important in Buddhism that “impermanence,” or the fact that everything born eventually dies, is at the top of the Buddha’s list of the three universal characteristics of existence. Before religious practice, Tibetan Buddhists chant, “The whole world and its inhabitants are impermanent. The life of human beings is like a bubble. Death comes without warning; this body too will be a corpse.” Such teachings may seem morbid, but they’re designed to awaken you from denial and inspire you to fully appreciate life because you never know when it will end.

“How sad it is that most of us only begin to appreciate our life when we are at the point of dying.” -Sogyal Rinpoche

Numerous individuals have discovered that contemplating and accepting their own mortality is a powerful source of happiness. It may seem counter-intuitive, but this isn’t something only found in religious teachings; it’s also been demonstrated by modern science.

Countless healthcare professionals report that people facing terminal illness often experience an incredible sense of peace and fulfillment in the days and weeks before they die. Many of them describe the acceptance of death as a life-changing event, confessing they never knew what it meant to live until they knew they were going to die.

The same is true for many who undergo a near-death experience (NDE). After staring death in the face, they report that their lives have much greater meaning. They frequently make dramatic life changes because they know without a doubt that any day, even today, might be their last.

“It is only in the face of death that man’s self is born.” -St Augustine

You’ve undoubtedly heard the key to happiness is to be fully present in each moment. This advice is also derived from acceptance of death. By accepting that death is inevitable, we’re inspired to embrace every second of our lives with more gratitude and joy because we know that our existence is so fleeting. If you’ve been avoiding thinking about and preparing for death, you may be missing out on an incredible opportunity. What all these experiences show us is that death is an essential part of what makes life so sweet.

One of the biggest steps in accepting death is to prepare for it with proper estate planning. And proper estate planning is needed, regardless of how big or small you think your estate is, because no matter what, your family is going to have to handle whatever you have when you’re gone. Indeed, facing life’s greatest fear head-on and using it as an opportunity to protect and provide for your family is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself and those you love.

If you’re ready to begin truly living your life, start by working with us as your Personal Family Lawyer® to properly plan for the inevitability of death. Contact us today to get started by scheduling a Family Wealth Planning Session.

This article is a service of Marianne S. Rantala, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session, ™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.