"It's not that I'm afraid to die. I just don't want to be there when it happens." -- Woody Allen
Having already covered such dreary topics as taxes, retirement, and consumer credit, we'll lighten up a bit this month with a discussion of...death. Sooner or (preferably) later, both you and I will shuffle off this mortal coil. As with everything else in life (oops, wrong choice of words), this inevitable event has financial implications.
Before we get down to morbid details, though, let's visit a Web site that offers a unique perspective on mortality. It's called the Death Clock and, if it's to be believed, April 27, 2032 is going to be a real bummer for me.
Now that we have a sense of how fast the sand is trickling though the hourglass, let's talk about what you can do to negate the adverse financial impact of kicking the bucket. First of all, because you can't take it with you, the main issue is who's going to get it when you're gone.
Like most patriotic people, you're probably hoping that a substantial portion of your assets will wind up in the government's hands, right? I didn't think so. Perhaps you would prefer that final legacy to be fattening some lawyer's wallet. No? In that case, welcome to the world of estate planning.
First of all, let me issue a strong disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. I don't even play one on TV. Estate planning is serious stuff, and the bigger your estate, the more complicated the planning gets. So, if at all in doubt, talk to an attorney about your plans. I certainly did (OK, she's my sister and she did it for free, but I would have paid her if I had to). By talking to a lawyer now, at least you'll have some control over how much he or she soaks you for (something that's a lot tougher to control from the great beyond).
The first consideration is this: Are you at risk of owing estate tax? I hope so. That's the "death tax" that Presidential nominee George W. Bush says he can't wait to repeal. (That should clue you in that it affects only the very wealthy.) If your total estate is worth less than half a million bucks, breathe easy -- you're small potatoes to Uncle Sam, at least for now. The amount (total worth of your estate) on which the estate tax exemption is based will gradually increase every year from now until 2006, when it will be a whopping $1,000,000.
Even so, if you've got substantial assets (stuff like houses, retirement plans, stock options, and a collection of vintage posters from the Fillmore Auditorium), it's worth taking a few minutes to calculate your potential estate-tax liability. There's a nifty Java-based calculator program that will help you do this on the SmartMoney.com Web site.
Does it look like you're going to owe? Then you will need some serious estate planning and had better make an appointment with someone who can help you evade, I mean, minimize the impact of estate taxes. If you don't know where to find such a planner, try a Web site like this one from the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys .
Now that we've got the filthy rich dead people out of the way, let's talk about estate planning for the rest of us. The good news is that you can probably plan for some or all of your own estate by using software from Nolo Press, a nifty publishing company that specializes in do-it-yourself legal books. Trust me: their products are not just for prisoners and litigious wackos. Even if you're using a lawyer, Nolo's stuff is indispensable for educating yourself about your legal options. Nolo offers two Mac-compatible packages that each handle one of the major options for estate planning: making a will (WillMaker 7) and creating a living trust (Living Trust Maker). I tried them both, and here's my take on them.
I first used WillMaker several years ago when it was at version 5. Version 7 has come a long way from the simple questionnaire format that the software used in version 5, although the program still relies on a Q&A format (in fact, if you've ever used MacInTax, you'll be right at home). Nolo has spiffed up the interface and, more importantly, added sections where you can draw up a financial power of attorney, specify health-care directives (sometimes called a "living will"), and even record your preferences for "final arrangements" (scatter me over the original Cavern Club site, please).
WillMaker 7's question-and-answer format makes the daunting task of writing your will seem easy.
A valid will is good to have because it ensures that your assets get distributed exactly how you want them to be and not according to some government formula. Too bad 70 percent of Americans don't have one. The disadvantage of relying on a will is that it does nothing to avoid probate, which is a time-consuming and potentially expensive legal process. My end result from WillMaker was a relatively straightforward legal document that easily passed muster with my sister the attorney.
On October 25, 2000, after this article was published, Nolo Press informed Macworld that Nolo no longer publishes software for the Mac. If you have a Nolo Press software product, be informed that they will only be supporting the Mac OS until the end of 2001 as outlined on their policy Web page .
If you would like to purchase WillMaker 7 for the Mac, try Amazon.com . Once you have purchased WillMaker 7, you must go to the Nolo Press Web site, at www.nolo.com/Downloads/wm7standmac.html to update your software to version 7.2. This will implement the most recent changes to Will and Trust law.
Nolo's other estate planning product, Living Trust Maker 2, creates something called a revocable living trust. Like the old version of WillMaker, the program has a bare-bones interface, although it's still simple to follow. As with WillMaker 7, though, Living Trust Maker 2 comes with thorough and helpful documentation, including a legal manual, to help you along.
Living Trust Maker 2 asks you who you want to name as your trustee.
A revocable living trust conveys your property to your heirs directly, thereby avoiding probate (although not estate taxes). Basically, you transfer legal title of your possessions to the trust. After you're out of the picture, a trustee whom you've appointed makes sure that everything is transferred from the trust to your designated beneficiaries. Because this is a more sophisticated estate strategy, setting it up will probably take longer than drafting a will -- mostly because you have to be specific about what property you are transferring to the trust.
The big advantage of a living trust is that it avoids probate, which has made living trusts increasingly popular, especially among the grandparent set. Creating one probably isn't worth the trouble, though, if you're young and don't have a lot of stuff like stocks and bonds and vacation homes to dispose of.
And while we're on the subject of stuff, let me add that Nolo also makes a product called Personal RecordKeeper, which you can use to inventory everything you won't be taking with you when you go. One reason this is noteworthy is that you can pull information from Personal RecordKeeper into WillMaker 7. Too bad, though, that Living Trust Maker 2 (which requires detailed specifications of your property) can't perform the same trick. The second reason is that Nolo offers all three programs in a bundle. Why would you want WillMaker 7 along with Living Trust Maker 2? So you can create a backup will to handle property that you might have forgotten or that you didn't want to bother transferring to the trust.
...for this column, anyway. If I haven't convinced you that you need to get your own affairs in order, then perhaps you should consider the peace of mind of whomever you hope to inherit from someday. Do you really want them to have to worry about dealing with probate? Maybe a Nolo bundle would make a thoughtful gift. You can always claim you just wanted to help them get organized.
JAMES BRADBURY is the former editor of MacUser and former online editor of Macworld. He also writes the Macworld column Your Mac and Your Money.