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3) what individual(s) should manage your estate at death, pay debts and taxes, and distribute remaining property as you specify. Think hard about this one, because you do not want to just have your random uncle do it. You also have to decide if the executor should be compensated for their time.

4) how outstanding debts and taxes should be paid, and whether you want to cancel any debts still owed to you.

You also want to make sure that your will is accompanied by documentation of important financial information, such as bank accounts and insurance policies, and that copies are held by a known responsible party, which could be a lawyer, accountant or the executor of your estate.

Tom: Do you have any other advice for communicating our wishes?

Mellody: I am a big proponent of sharing your thinking by talking through all of the eventualities to ensure there are no secrets or surprises. Better that your heirs are able to ask you questions while you are alive than have to ponder your thinking after you are gone. On the other hand, if you have parents who are getting older, you should take the time to ask if they have a current living will as well as an up-to-date will. Also inquire about their long-term care insurance coverage and their overall retirement preparedness. They may have some expectation that you will help them financially, which would be good to know sooner rather than later.

 Tom: Who should we talk to to get the ball rolling?

Mellody: There are really three options these days – do it yourself, use online software options like Legal Zoom, or consult with an actual lawyer. I strongly advice against the do-it-yourself option. After all, you don’t really want your final wishes recorded on the back of a napkin, because you are very likely to make mistakes. A great example?  Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger wrote his own will, and made enough mistakes to cost his beneficiaries a bunch of legal fees and more than $450,000 in taxes. In terms of the online options, they are a solid start if your assets are straightforward and your finances are not complex. However, if you this is not the case and you can afford it, you should almost certainly find an estate attorney. The key takeaway here is that whether you decide to go the online route or to a lawyer, you need to have both a last will and a living will.

Tom: Thanks for joining us, Mellody. This is a really important topic for everyone.

Mellody: It really is. Have a great week, Tom.

Mellody is President of Ariel investments, a Chicago-based money management firm that serves individual investors and retirement plans through its no-load mutual funds and separate accounts. Additionally, she is a regular financial contributor and analyst for CBS News.

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Monday Mondays: Why Estate Planning Is So Important  was originally published on

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