Keep pinching those pennies!
Less paper pushing at the IRS

In fond memory of ...

Funeral_spray_3_1 Have you ever wanted to attend your own funeral?

I'm not talking about the spiritual "watching from beyond" attendance.

I mean the sitting there in the back of the church or mortuary or wherever the actual service is held. You know, just to see how many people show up and what they say about you, your life and what you meant to them.

I know we don't all have a life-altering, George Bailey, "Wonderful Life" effect on everybody we meet. But I believe we all do make some difference for at least a couple of other people. Knowing that what we do, whether through our work or an avocation or a true passion, is worthwhile and means something to others is what keeps us going.

Personally, I'd prefer to get validation in the here and now that I'm making at least a little bit of positive difference in someone's life. But we all get busy and too often forget to tell people those sorts of things in this life, when we're pretty sure they'll be appreciated. They may well be appreciated in an afterlife, too, but I just don't have any confirmation of that.

So why am I a bit morbid today? I ran across "my" obituary.

OK. It wasn't mine, although that certainly would be a nifty blogging trick if it were.

It was for Kay Noble-Bell of Amarillo. She passed away last week, but the announcement didn't come until today (here's the Washington Post version from the

It's weird to see my name (well, part of it) in an obit. I remember writing these when I started out as a newspaper reporter. Taking down the info and condensing someone's existence into a few paragraphs. Famous folks get their obits pre-written and then held until the literally final moment, although from time to time one gets mistakenly published early.

According to my counterpart Kay's obit, she was famous in sporting circles. She was a professional wrestler, apparently a star "known for her toughness in the ring." Cool!

I'm sure St. Peter didn't give her any guff when she got to the Pearly Gates!

Planning ahead: Although it's uncomfortable to think about our mortality, we all eventually must. If we don't, we run the very real risk of leaving our family members in difficult straits, emotionally and financially.

The Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement says a widow is likely to face expenses that are 80 percent of what they were before she lost her husband, but her income may only be two-thirds of what it was prior to her spouse’s death. Her late husband's pension benefits generally are reduced by half, according to WISER, and she might lose a third or more of Social Security benefits.

If the wife is the main breadwinner, then her widowed husband will be in that same potentially leaky boat. And don't forget about the children. With impending, and costly, school needs, finances will be stretched even more.

So everyone, regardless of gender, needs to sit down and take a good, hard, honest look at what their finances are and what plans they have made for their families when the worst eventually happens.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Make sure each partner at least knows what accounts you have and how to access them.
  • Check your life insurance policies to ensure that the coverage is sufficient. If you bought the policy many years ago, or before you married or had a family, it might not be enough.
  • Also make sure the beneficiary information on the policies and other benefits at work are up-to-date. Did you remember to make your spouse the prime beneficiary instead of your parents when you got married?
  • Do you have a will? Does your family know? Have you informed them of special bequests you plan to make so there are no surprises, hurt feelings or confusion? You don't want them to end up in a probate battle like Anna Nicole.
  • How about a living will and a medical power of attorney? Don't get caught in a Schiavo situation.
  • Talk to your attorney or financial planner about trusts and what kind might work well for your family.
  • Does your partner know your last wishes, for example, are you an organ donor? Do you prefer cremation to burial? Maybe you'd like to donate your body to your alma mater's medical school.
  • Have you looked into pre-paying funeral expenses?
  • Is there a particular charity that you would like donations sent to in your name? Have you considered naming that group in your will?
  • Do you know whether your estate will be subject to the federal estate tax? If so, look into what you can do to reduce that tax bite.
  • What about state inheritance or estate taxes? Some jurisdictions can dramatically cut into what you leave your heirs if you don't plan ahead.

Yes, it's a lot, and a lot of difficult stuff to consider. That's why you need to do it well in advance, so that things work out the way you want.

And, more importantly, so that your family won't have to struggle through these matters when they're still coping with losing you.

Estate tax essentials: If your total estate in 2006 is less than $2 million, then your heirs will not have to worry about federal estate taxes.

If, however, the value of all your worldly possessions comes to more than $2 million, the IRS will collect estate taxes on the amount over that limit. If you've been a diligent saver and investor all your life, or your home has escalated in value tremendously, then exceeding the estate tax exemption is a definite possibility.

That $2 million cut-off also will be in effect in 2007 and 2008. In 2009, it  goes up to $3.5 million. And in 2010, no federal taxes will be collected on any estates, regardless of how large.

However, when this law phasing out the so-called death tax was passed back in 2001, lawmakers included a sunset provision in order to make the budget numbers work. That means that unless Congress passed legislation to extend the phase-out amounts or make the elimination of the estate tax permanent, it will be back in 2011 and with a $1 million exclusion amount.

With historic federal deficits, Iraq war costs and concerns about the long-term viability of Social Security and other public programs, our federal lawmakers face some difficult decisions on whether to extend tax breaks to taxpayers with estates worth millions.

IRS data show that only around 2 percent of taxpayers end up owing estate taxes, but the issue goes beyond the statistical information. And it has become the focal point for heated partisan confrontations about tax policy.

Last month, the nonprofit groups Public Citizen and United for a Fair Economy released an interesting report on the estate tax and some of the behind-the-scene skirmishes.

A particularly interesting section of the report is its contention that 18 of America's wealthiest families have been the major financiers of the effort to permanently repeal the estate tax. The list includes names like Walton (Wal-Mart), Dorrance (Campbell soup), Gallo (wines), Mars (candy) and Nordstrom (department store).

According to the report, these families and their companies have helped raise more than $490 million since 1988 to advocate repeal of the estate tax. You can see the whole "super-wealthy" list and read the full report here.

Whether these families and those who agree with them that the estate tax should be abolished will succeed remains to be seen. But don't sit around and hope it might not be an issue when your time comes.

Start making your estate plans now, just in case.


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