Q: How do we find an honest and reliable institution to administer our estate after our passing? We do not have children and do not want to have relatives undertake this task. Who can we name as administrators who will in all likelihood still be around at our demise? We are both in our 60s.
A: Estate planning is usually associated with taking care of family and children, but it's also critical for households without heirs. The two key issues with estate planning are clearly stating where you would like your accumulated assets, savings and stuff to go and who you would prefer to execute your wishes when you pass away.
It's amazing how complicated an even relatively modest estate can be. For example, here is how Henry Hebeler of the retirement planning website Analyzenow.com lays out a number of items for your checklist. "Consider your will, health care directive, trusts, executor, beneficiary designations, distribution of personal items, list of locations of important documents or possessions, home maintenance contacts, important people to inform of death, dependent and pet care, immediate financial needs, tax documents and data, travel point credits, instructions for activities that have to be continued or closed," he writes. .
The foundation of any estate plan is a will. Although you can create a will on your own, I remain a fan of hiring a lawyer to draft a will for most people. You'll also want to make sure you designate beneficiaries for your retirement plans. Your documents should be easy to find and well organized, such as information about bank accounts, savings accounts, credit cards and 401(k)s.
I imagine you will want your money to go to charity. Will that include money raised from the sale of any jewelry, home furnishings and other household goods? Will you name charities as beneficiaries of your retirement plan? (By the way, it's simpler to name and direct money to charities if you turn existing 401(k)s and similar employer-sponsored retirement savings plans into IRAs.) What kind of legacy would you like to leave behind? You could also consult with a book like "Your Community Legacy: How to Extend Your Values Beyond Your Lifetime," by Joe Selvaggio, founder of MicroGrants. (It's available at the organization's website for $5 at microgrants.net).
The second big question: Choosing the executor to your estate. If the estate is simple (a relative term), many people in your circumstances turn to a longtime, trusted friend whom you believe will be responsible at settling up any debts, paying taxes and following the instructions in your will. If you go this route — and after talking it over with your friend — I would also make an explicit provision to pay them for their services.
If that isn't an option, you can also turn to a professional. I would get recommendations from people you trust, and I would comparison shop after gathering some names. You mentioned you hired attorneys for handling the estate of your mother and your husband's mother. Did you like the job they did? Would one of them make for a good executor? Ask the same set of questions of the lawyer who drafts your will. If you work with a financial planner, he or she is a potential guide. Bank trust departments have long acted as executors. If you have a relationship with a bank, I would set up an appointment.
The professional route will cost you, but it's also regulated, so you should get and ask for an approximation of fees and other costs involved in administering the estate.
Chris Farrell is economics editor for "Marketplace Money." His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.