Read This Column Before You Die

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The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time. - Mark Twain

It can be both comforting and horrifying to think that our time on earth is a nano-blink of an eye, a sliver of time that passes slowly when tax forms are being prepared and quickly when the sun is shining.

Death is something we all try not to think about, yet it is our ultimate goal, the ending of every book, if life were an autobiography. We mostly shrug it off because, after all, we can’t avoid it.

But we can make the most of the inevitable. How? By planning ahead, not only for the sake of our families, but for ourselves. We’ve written before about the importance of making financial goals, but life goals are also essential. And, as with financial goals, you can’t meet them if you don’t have them.

The ultimate plan

Whether you’re getting on in age, have a terminal illness or are young and healthy, no one knows what will happen tomorrow, so prepare today. But what should your ultimate plan entail?

Make a "bucket list." The co-author of the book, "100 Things to Do Before You Die," died in an accident when he was 47. According to his writing partner, he had completed about half of his "to do" list when he died. Because he had a list and was determined to achieve his goals, he did many things he never would have done otherwise.

However, his co-author also noted that he traveled alone, so he could move through his list quicker. Sadly, the author missed an important point - it really isn’t about the list. Your list should be a guide to living life to the fullest. If you’re going through a list just to cross something off, why bother?

Whether you’re planning to go skydiving and want to visit the seven wonders of the world, like Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman did in "The Bucket List," or you have more modest goals, like learning a foreign language or cooking a gourmet meal, keep in mind that it’s important to savor the moment - and shouldn’t you be savoring the moment with a loved one or friend?

When you make out your bucket list, be certain that everything on it is something you can accomplish. Although you never know until you try, dating Angelina Jolie or winning an Olympic gold medal are about as realistic for most of us as winning the lottery. While it is important to believe in yourself, you need to know your limitations.

It’s also important to give your list some thought. Many of us don’t really know what we want. Sitting and planning out your life - and beyond - is not something you should do one day during your lunch break. Take your time and really think about what you want to do. Then develop a plan for achieving everything on your list.

Update your financial goals. Ideally, you could plan for retirement first and then plan for the next phase when you’re retired. But, since no one knows when the next phase will begin, you need to plan for it now.

What do you want to happen after you’re gone? Is there a charity you would like to help? Do you want to fund your grandchildren’s college education? Think beyond your retirement and write out your goals.

Plan your estate

Estate planning is not just for the very wealthy. It’s true that current law allows an exemption of assets worth up to $5 million from federal estate taxes, but in Massachusetts any estate with a value greater than $1 million is subject to estate taxes.

If you reside in Massachusetts and your estate exceeds $1 million in value, including the value of your home, your investment portfolio, your life insurance benefits and other assets, it will be subject to state taxation at a rate of up to 16 percent.

However, because Massachusetts has no gift tax, gifts can be made during your lifetime to reduce your taxable estate. It’s been said that death and taxes are the only certainties, but with careful planning, sometimes one of the two can be avoided.

Of course, there’s more to estate planning that reducing taxes. It’s also important to have a will, which determines how your property will be divided after your death. Without this essential legal document, your property may not be divided according to your intentions. Most likely, it will also become tied up in Probate Court and it may take years before your survivors have access to your assets.

Make certain you seek the assistance of an attorney with experience making out wills. Having a will that is not legally valid can be worse than having no will at all because it may be disputed. Also, be certain to update your will periodically.

Keep in mind that retirement accounts and life insurance policies are not covered by your will, as you designate beneficiaries when you sign a contract for these assets. Make certain that you have designated individuals you truly want to be your beneficiaries and you have not unintentionally excluded anyone, such as a child born after you initially designated your beneficiaries. Plan your legacy assets. Most people consider their financial assets in planning their estate. You also have accumulated many other assets during your lifetime. Some of the best assets are the memories of special events or family gatherings. Many of these are recorded photographically and able to be passed on to heirs.

However, the asset value of the wisdom garnered, the valuable experiences received, the life lessons learned, the appreciation of others that have helped you along the way are all assets available for sharing.

Similar to a will that administers your financial assets, you can prepare a separate letter, memoranda or formal ethical will to pass on to your family and others.

Get organized

Your death will likely be difficult on your family. You can ease the burden by planning your funeral and letting your wishes be known. Do you have a cemetery plot? Have you picked out a casket? Is there a charity to which you would like contributions sent?

If you take care of every detail, your children and your spouse won’t have to. Clean out your attic and your closet and get rid of unwanted items. Give away anything you won’t use. Go through your photos and organize them. Determine if you need to change their medium to an electronic format.

People often tell me that they do not want to be a burden to their children. It can be painful for your family to have to deal with these issues; dealing with them yourself will make it easier on them.

Also, be certain to choose an executor for your will. Talk to your executor and make certain that he or she has a true understanding of your wishes and will carry them out to the last detail. Many times writing a letter of instruction to your executor or trustee is helpful for those matters not easily handled by the formal document.

You may not care what happens after you die, but keep in mind that your decisions today will have an eternal impact and could affect how you are remembered.

Seek balance

Death and taxes may be inevitable, but the more time you spend preparing for either, the better the outcome is likely to be. If you were to die tomorrow, that would be tragic. The tragedy would be compounded, though, if your family had to deal with matters without knowing your wishes. Regardless, in the process of planning for the future, don’t forget to live for today. Carrying out your bucket list is more important - and more fun - than preparing it.

Ask yourself what you are doing today that you would change. Is your career fulfilling? Do you have a secret ambition, like writing a book or taking a special trip? Act on your passions and interests today, before it is too late. Plan for the future, but enjoy life today. Carpe diem!

Darrell J. Canby