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A task without a deadline is just wishful thinking.
Sometimes, you can get away with procrastinating. If you never get around to alphabetizing your spices, no one’s life will change. But putting off some tasks could have a huge impact on loved ones.
The close of the year is a good time to set some firm deadlines to make sure you won’t leave a financial mess for people you love if you unexpectedly die or become incapacitated. Consider putting these items on your to-do list with a Dec. 31 due date:
1. Check your beneficiaries
If you need convincing that updating beneficiaries is important, consider the case of David Egelhoff, a Washington state man who died two months after his divorce was final in 1994. Because he had not changed his beneficiaries, his life insurance proceeds and pension plan were paid to his ex-wife rather than his children from a previous marriage. The children sued, and the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 2001 that the beneficiary designations had to be honored.
You’re typically prompted to name beneficiaries when you sign up for a 401(k) or other retirement account. Beneficiaries also are usually required when you buy annuities or life insurance. You often can check and change beneficiaries online, or you may need to call the company to request the appropriate form.
2. Review pay-on-death resignations
You may not have been required to name beneficiaries when you opened your checking account or a non-retirement investment account. Instead, financial institutions may offer a “pay on death” option. This allows you to name a beneficiary who can receive the money directly. Otherwise, the account typically has to go through probate, the legal procedure to distribute your property after you die.
Some states also have “transfer on death” options for vehicles and even real estate. Like pay-on-death accounts, these options allow you to pass property directly to heirs without the potential delays and costs of probate.
Beneficiaries can be added to vehicle registrations in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Vermont and Virginia, according to self-help legal site Nolo. To add or change a beneficiary, you apply for a certificate of car ownership with the beneficiary form.
Transfer-on-death deeds for real estate are available in Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming, according to legal site Nolo. To add or change a beneficiary, the deed must be submitted to the appropriate county recorder.
3. Update insurers — and your heirs
Insurers usually don’t pay out life insurance proceeds until someone files a claim. But far too often, heirs are unaware that the money exists. A Consumer Reports investigation in 2013 found about $1 billion in life insurance proceeds waiting to be claimed.
Updating your contact information with your insurer also may help prevent policies from lapsing. I just heard from a reader who lost her long-term care coverage because she’d moved, forgotten to tell her insurer and failed to notice she hadn’t been billed. Many insurers will allow you to name someone who can be notified if a payment is overdue or they can’t find you. You’ll want to keep the contact information for those back-up people updated with the company, as well.
4. Visit your safe deposit box
If you forget to pay your annual fee and your bank can’t find you, after a few years your safe deposit box will be drilled and the contents turned over to the state. Photos and documents could be destroyed and family heirlooms sold at auction. Visit your box once a year to make sure your payments and contact details are current. Leave clear instructions with your executor or your heirs about where to find the box and its keys.
5. Create or revise powers of attorney
Powers of attorney allow others to make financial and health care decisions for you if you become incapacitated. If you don’t have these documents, or the designated people have died or are otherwise unavailable, your loved ones may have to go to court to take over. The expense and delay can add trauma at an already difficult time. Spare everyone that pain by naming a backup person or two and reviewing the documents every year to make sure the people named can still serve.
A previous version of this column omitted Texas and Nebraska from the list of states that allow transfer-on-death real estate deeds and erroneously included Michigan.
This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by The Associated Press.