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By George Guerin

In my experience, there are two huge challenges when it comes to estate planning.

First, no one (and I mean no one!) wants to talk about and tackle the “details” surrounding illness and death. And, because death and estate planning are so taboo, many people act on assumptions that are based on limited knowledge and little or no professional guidance.

Alice and Cliff had been together for over a decade, but they’d never married. Already in their late 60s when they met, Cliff had already been retired for years. So even after they moved in together, they decided to keep their estates separate as an inheritance for their respective children. Alice was still in shock and barely functioning when she called to tell me Cliff had died after a short and intense battle with cancer.

Cliff’s diagnosis had been completely unexpected, and his intense treatment of surgery, chemo, and radiation had been their only focus from the moment they received the test results until the day he died just three months later. In the whirlwind, there had simply been no time or energy to think about the details of estate and financial planning. Now that Cliff was gone, Alice needed my help to get her financial future in order—and to get “unstuck” so she could focus on her future.


I knew the first thing we needed to do was to identify Cliff’s assets, and then determine how each asset was owned and the named beneficiary for each. Alice knew where Cliff’s records were kept, but that was about it. They had always filed separate taxes, and all of their investments—including their individual IRAs, 401(ks), and brokerage accounts—were kept separately.

To make matters more difficult, they had never discussed finances at this level with each other (or with me), so there were a lot of questions on the table. Was the house owned in his name only, or in joint tenancy with Alice? Who were the beneficiaries for his life insurance policy and his 401(k), IRA, and brokerage accounts? And what about Cliff’s savings and checking accounts? Did Alice even have access? Were those funds hers to use as she needed?

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