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Organizing records for your estate.

If you haven't established a comprehensive estate plan or haven't taken the time to organize your records in a way that will help your executor, trustee, agents and survivors, now is the time to do it. "Get It Together" will help you do it the right way.

Recently, the AARP magazine printed an article about the need and desirability of organizing financial and personal accounts for survivors. Having done this for a disorganized Uncle, the advice hit home. AARP has their own guide (Checklist for my Family), however, I decided to research other guides. An on-line Customer Review mentioned "Get It Together" and I'm indebted to that reviewer.

I went to my local Barnes and Noble (Livonia MI) to look through a copy of Get It Together. I found it better met my needs. It is comprehensive, easy to navigate, and written in layman's narrative that is easy to understand and follow. Get It Together contains worksheets which can be used for draft and/or final copy. Purchasers also have the ability to download the forms in Rich Text Format and a binder with preprinted tabs also is available. The Author, Melanie Cullen, immediately replied to an email question which I found remarkable. I recommend Get It Together to everyone for your own plans and loved ones for whom you may be a caregiver.

You have made one of the most overwhelming and personally confronting tasks almost fun, and certainly easy to complete.

My husband and I work together on the material to put in the planner and that has provided us the opportunity to discuss some really important things. Your work has made a HUGE impact on our lives.

It's really imperative that I get all this stuff together should anything happen to me.†It's also making me feel more organized about my current life.

I think you have produced something here than actually transcends a good "how to" book. The "doer" becomes more conscious, aware and grateful for this gift of life....

This book is exactly what I was looking for.† Thank you, as this will assist me in organizing our important information to make everything easier for our boys one day.

Your book and planner are so very thorough and very easy to read and understand. [Besides Momís planner], I am making two additional planners, one each for my husband and for myself. It is a great relief to finally put things in order. I do all of the book keeping and paperwork for our general contracting business, as well as our personal affairs. I often joke that if I get hit by the mail truck, my husband won't know what to do. Now he will know where everything is located, and he will know what needs to be done.

My sincere thanks for sharing your exceptional organizational skills and insights.

The more I do, the better I feel.

Your caring nature and kindness is reflected in the helpful nature of your book. I have been trying to "get it together" since 1998 when we established our trust. Life would get in the way and I always seemed to rethink the plan when returning to it. Now with a checklist with detailed instructions I hope to get the job completed. It will feel good to have it off my mind.

This past April, my husband died and when I took the needed financial section to the financial planner and the lawyer, both commented what a wonderful gift the organized information was to me (and to them, I am sure). My deepest thanks to you for writing the book and teaching the class from which I have benefitted so much. You truly are a gifted teacher.

Thank you for Ö a comprehensive guide that will finally allow me to organize all the important information and papers to support our trust. You have made me aware of what a burden and Herculean task I was assigning to our loved ones. That binder will be not only a caring "gift" to our heirs but a wonderful resource for any emergency situation.

It clearly lays out a method to help you and, more importantly, those you leave behind, organize and keep track of essential information and important documents. The book actually covers a lot of things that most people never think about. I know it contained elements that made me go, yeah, I should do that. I can see how going through this book and actually making a planner with the included forms would greatly benefit those I leave behind. I recommend you do the same, and this book is a good resource for doing it.

Many, many thanks for this gift for my heirs. Itís an even greater gift for meópeace of mind.

It's a huge resource, filled with all sorts of helpful information. At first glance, it may feel a bit daunting to take on such a large task, but Iím hoping that by working through the book at a one-chapter-per-week pace, I will have my family files organized within the next six months. Please consider joining me in the process and don't wait until tragedy strikes or itís too late to put your affairs in order. This is a lasting legacy of personal productivity we can leave for those who love us most!

You've inspired me to organize other areas of my life so I can Get It Together in my (our) planner. And I have 5 blue binders on my desk that I am helping my extended family to also get it together. You're cloning your knowledge!

The time and effort that went into developing Get It Together, we can only imagine. We enthusiastically applaud you…. As I read and worked my way through Get It Together, my appreciation strengthened and reinforced my gratefulness.

The final product is a thing of beauty. Thank you! Thank you!

The Bottom Line

Get It Together is a vital resource for every person whether they are young or old. This book contains directions and forms to cover every aspect of a person's life. Once the forms are filled in and the important papers and information is gathered together, your life will be organized. If something should happen and you are not able to handle your affairs, the information gathered will help your family help you.


Easy, straight-forward instructions

Covers every aspect of a person's personal information

Lots of illustrations and worksheets

Includes a CD Rom with printable forms


Wish it would have been published before my parents died

Guide Review

Your important papers and personal information is vital to your everyday life. If you can't find certain papers, you might forget to pay a bill or worse yet, you might waste valuable time and money if you need information right away. How many times have you rummaged around a cluttered desk, searched through stacks of papers, or dug through the trash to find a misplaced paper? How many times have you forgotten your password when trying to pay an online bill? If you had your papers organized, this might not happen.

If you should get sick, would your loved ones know how to contact your employer, know where you insurance cards are located, or know what bills need taken care of immediately? If you should die, would your loved ones know where your insurance policies are located, know your final wishes, or what debts you have?

How about your parents, would you know what to do if they became ill or died? Do you know where their important papers are located? Do you know their final wishes? Do you know who their attorney is or where their will is located? These are important questions that should be answered before they are necessary.

Get It Together will help you and your family get all the vital information and papers into one location so in the event of an emergency you will have one less problem to deal with. This book is a must-have for every home.

Marshall Loeb's Daily Money Tip

Choosing an expert for estate planning

When planning your estate, it's wise to seek the help of an expert such as an attorney, accountant, financial planner or document preparer. Choosing the right one for you is essential.

Melanie Cullen, author of "Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won't Have To," says that it's important to find a person who is both knowledgeable in the field and also easy to develop a good working relationship with.

Follow these steps to find a good match:

  • Ask people in your network. Start with friends, family, co-workers and acquaintances for recommendations. Word of mouth is still one of the most reliable ways to get a good referral.
  • Talk to other professionals. Need a financial planner? Talk to your attorney. Seek out help from other professionals you respect and work well with. They may know a trustworthy source and understand the type of person you're looking for.
  • Get advice from business managers. If you know someone who runs a business (and you respect that person), look for a referral there. Business owners usually have lots of contacts for such professionals because they work with them regularly.

Once you've found someone to meet with for an initial consultation, be prepared. Write down specific questions and do your research ahead of time. Have an idea, also, of the type of help you need.

If your initial meeting does not go well or don't get the answers you need, "say thank you and try someone else," writes Cullen.

Plan funeral now to make sure you have the final word

Some folks want to be transported to their grave in a horse-drawn hearse, followed by a dozen bagpipers and a throng of mourners. Others prefer a quick cremation, followed by a keg party. Whatever your preference for your final arrangements, you should make your wishes known to your family and friends.

That will spare your survivors the difficult task of trying to figure out what you would have wanted. It can also save them money.

Planning your own funeral "eases the burden for families," says Robert Biggins, president of the National Funeral Directors Association and owner of the Magoun-Biggins Funeral Home in Rockland, Mass. "It takes out the guesswork and sometimes brings a quiet solitude in the midst of their grief."

For many families, a funeral will be one of the most expensive purchases they ever make. The average cost: $6,500, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. But some traditional funerals with a casket, limousines, a viewing and burial can exceed $20,000.

Given the expense, you should talk to several funeral homes and compare prices, says Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a consumer group. Don't let someone pressure you into buying the most expensive casket in the showroom. You wouldn't walk into an appliance store "looking for a refrigerator and believe everything the salesmen tells you about the new 2006 model," he says.

Know your rights

A federal law known as the Funeral Rule is designed to protect consumers from unscrupulous funeral home operators. Unfortunately, few consumers know about the law, Slocum says. Among the provisions:

  • A funeral home must provide you with an itemized price list of its products and services. Items usually include the fees for professional services, transportation and care of the body, costs of providing facilities and staff for a wake or viewing, flowers, music and preparation of obituary notices. The price list lets you choose only the products and services you want. It also makes it easier to compare the prices offered by different funeral homes.
  • The funeral home is required to give you a free copy of the price list when you visit. It's also required to tell you its prices over the phone. If a funeral director refuses to do so, suggesting instead that you come in for an appointment, "That should be a warning sign," Slocum says. If state or local law requires you to buy a particular service, the funeral provider must disclose it on the price list, along with a reference to the law.
  • When you visit a funeral home, the director is required to show you a list of caskets the company sells, along with descriptions and prices, before showing you the caskets. This rule is designed to prevent funeral homes from steering you to the most expensive models.
  • If you buy your casket from somewhere else, the funeral home can't refuse to provide services. And it can't charge you an extra fee. This is an important provision, because a casket is typically the most expensive item bought for a traditional funeral. Prices range from $2,000 to $10,000.
  • If you want a direct cremation - which means there will be no visitation or viewing - the funeral home can't require you to buy a casket. Upon request, the funeral home must offer an unfinished wood box or other alternative container.
  • Funeral homes are barred from requiring embalming if you plan to be buried or cremated shortly after death. Except in certain cases, embalming isn't required by law, and funeral homes must disclose that fact to potential customers.

Prepaid funerals

Many funeral homes allow individuals to pay in advance for their funerals. These prepaid plans appeal to people who prefer not to burden their families with funeral costs. Some prepaid plans are cash-value life insurance policies that will cover funeral costs. In other cases, funeral homes invest your money in a trust.

These plans aren't covered by federal law, and state regulation is uneven. Some families have lost their money when a funeral home went out of business. In October, a Kentucky funeral home director was sentenced to 30 months in prison for stealing $90,000 from prepaid funeral plans.

Others have discovered, after moving to another state, that their plans were non-transferable. "Prepaid funerals are the biggest segment of complaints we get," Slocum says.

But Biggins contends that abuses are rare and that prepaid contracts offer crucial advantages. Prepaid funeral contracts, for example, aren't considered assets for purposes of determining eligibility for Medicaid. If you end up in a nursing home, the state can't force you to use the money in your prepaid contract to pay for your care before you become eligible for Medicaid.

There are other ways to set aside money for your funeral. You can set up a payable-on-death, or POD, account at your bank, naming the person you want to handle your arrangements as the beneficiary. These accounts don't have to go through probate, the often lengthy process by which a court distributes your assets. When you die, the money will go immediately to the beneficiary and will be available for your funeral.

Unlike with a prepaid contract, you maintain control of the money. If you need funds for medical expenses - or if you decide you'd rather have a new deck than a mahogany coffin - you can withdraw your money from the POD account.

If you're concerned about Medicaid eligibility, check the laws of your state. Some states, Slocum says, will exempt POD accounts if they're set up as irrevocable trusts.

Your instructions

Once you've decided on your final arrangements, write a letter of instruction for your survivors. Make sure it's in a place they can get to quickly. Any decisions about organ or body donations need to be made within hours of your death. Depending on your religious faith, you may want to be buried within two to four days.

If you want family and friends to make charitable contributions in your name, your survivors will need to include that information in your obituary, usually published shortly after death.

Putting your letter of final instructions in a safe deposit box isn't a good idea, says Melanie Cullen, author of Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won't Have To, by Nolo Press. If you die on a weekend or a holiday, your family may not be able to get to your safe deposit box until the bank opens. In some states, opening the safe deposit box could take weeks.

Attaching your letter of final instructions to your will isn't wise, either, because your will might not be found and read until several weeks after your death. Instead, consider storing your instructions in a home safe, and make sure your executor or someone else you trust knows where to find it, Cullen says.

Along with instructing relatives on the disposition of your remains, written instructions offer a way to help them plan your wake or memorial service. You can specify the location, the type of music, food and drink made available, even the guest list.

"Services and memorials are so much more meaningful if you do what the person wanted," Cullen says.

It's amazing how complete it is. You've thought of everything! You've even shown us how to keep it up-to-date as changes in our lives occur. All it takes is having to be an executrix one time to realize how valuable a resource like this is. Thanks so much for this articulate, well thought out, organized and compassionate guide.

Anita Finley, Boomer Times & Senior Life.

Radio Interview Excerpts

It's so long overdue that we have a book like this, Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won't Have To.

I have been giving to very special people a book. We were able to get them into the hands of a lot of people who deal with the senior population. I was thinking it would be a wonderful gift for them to give to their clients and their customers.

I must tell everyone who is listening that this book is probably the best $22 you could ever spend. It's a very big book; it's chockfull of things! It's so carefully thought out, it's just a matter of filling things in. In Insurance, it asks you about the type of your policy, who's the owner, where it is-which is the most important thing, because people spend months, years, looking for documents, don't they?

We know about wills and trusts, but even so, it goes over a lot of things that maybe the lawyer you go to hasn't even thought of.

This makes the perfect gift: You can give it to yourself, you can gift it to an elder person or a boomer, or give it to your children. It's a great gift item. This is what everybody needs; it's like a bible!

It's the best $22 you're ever going to spend. It will save such pain and suffering on your family. And it's going to make you feel very good about your life.

Bill Finley, Boomer Times & Senior Life.

Get It Together: A Book For Everyone Who Wants An Organized Demise

One of the finest things a person can do is to prepare for his/her own departure by organizing all important materials ahead of time. There is a natural tendency to avoid either talking or thinking about one's own death.

However, to avoid confusion, inter-family friction and doubts about future ownership of assets, many documents are necessary.

This do-it-yourself book contains pages of well-thought-out spaces for you to fill in. It will assist you and your spouse or other relatives to settle many issues before the sad event. For example, there are chapters on the critical letter to your heirs and associates giving instructions about matters of importance to you and them, the location of birth and other certificates and vital documents, arranging care for children as well as job-related issues and pet care.

It deals with obituaries mainly for the benefit of your closest loved ones who may not be up to penning a suitable informational tribute. Also covered are questions of memberships in clubs, health care directives, organ donation, burial or cremation, funerals and memorial services, not to mention wills, trusts and other legal issues.

Valuable guidance is offered on the subjects of bank and brokerage accounts, credit cards, taxes, real estate, owned or leased vehicles. You get the idea. The wisest and most caring person of advanced age or someone with a really serious disease will use this book as a guide for leaving with grace and thoughtfulness.

This workbook provides a complete system for structuring and organizing a records binder. If you'd like to work on your computer, use the CD-ROM - then simply print your work and put it in a binder.

This will also make a perfect gift for all of your elder family members and friends.

Five Steps to Organizing Your Records, Nolo.

Adapted from Get It Together by Melanie Cullen

Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won't Have To provides all the forms to create a "planner" in which to record your information. Here are five steps that will help you complete your planner with a minimum of hassle and stress:

  • Complete the easiest topics. Before you begin, familiarize yourself with all the topics involved. Then do the simplest, most straightforward ones first, such as children, pets and livestock, and memberships.
  • Tackle the essential topics. Having warmed up with the easy topics, take on the most essential ones, each of which may require you to do a small project, depending the work you've already done. Essential tasks include gathering information about your health care directives, durable power of attorney for finances, will, living trust, organ or body donation wishes, preference for burial or cremation, and plans for a funeral or other memorial service.
  • Take on the more complex topics.From recording information about real estate holdings to writing an obituary, Get It Together spells out 14 additional topics of varying complexity. Take them one at a time and experience the satisfaction of adding each one to your planner.
  • Complete your letter and instructions. Ideally, your planner should begin with a letter from you to your loved ones. It is an opportunity to say goodbye, offer comfort, express love and appreciation, and set out words for which you wish to be remembered. You may want to leave its writing until last. It may come to you more easily after you have spent time on the rest of your planner.
  • Talk to your loved ones. Your planner won't be complete until you've stored it safely and told the important people in your life where to find it.

What inspired you to write Get It Together?

My mother died a few years ago. She had fallen and broken her leg. Slow and difficult mending foreshadowed her death. I knew that I needed to be with her more in the time that remained. And I knew I had to ask some tough questions: "Where is that burial plot you and Dad purchased years ago? Where is the paperwork? What kind of funeral service do you want? Who should we call for help winding up your estate?" This experience got me thinking about the book.

Despite these questions, I was ill prepared for my mother's death. Even though she was very organized, I did not have-or ever find-some of the information I needed. Winding up her affairs required extraordinary effort, significant research, and some guesswork. I vowed then to make my death easier for my survivors.

What's your approach to organizing records?

There are two parts to the book, a guide and a "planner." The planner consists of forms - both in the workbook and on CD-ROM - that you use to record your information. The guide is chock full of information, providing background, direction, and resources to prepare important documents and complete each section of the planner. The sequence of the planner follows the guide and is designed to create an easy-to-use reference for your survivors.

What are the main benefits of creating a planner?

It will make your death less burdensome for your loved ones. Your planner provides direction, reducing their confusion in the first hours, days, and weeks. There's also personal satisfaction in having your affairs in order, in filing birth certificates, vehicle title papers, your will, financial statements, and insurance policies in a single, secure location. Finally, in completing your planner, you will spend time thinking about your eventual death. As sad as that may be, facing the certainty of death generates a freedom to live life more fully today.

How important is it to update your planner?

Keeping your information current is so important that every topic in the book includes simple, specific tips for updating your planner over time.

What good are your important papers if no one can find them?

Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won't Have To
With CD-ROM · 1st Edition

Melanie Cullen with Shae Irving, J.D.

One of the most considerate things you can do for yourself and your survivors is to organize critical information about assets, legal affairs and last wishes so that it's easy to find and understand. And odd as it seems, the process needn't be painful. The key is a straightforward "planner" that you use to record your information and file your documents.

That's the message of Melanie Cullen, author of Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won't Have To , new from Nolo. "Organizing your records is a wonderful gift, both to yourself and to your loved ones," Cullen says. "You will feel good about your completed planner. And your work will help loved ones cope with your passing with clear, caring direction."

Most of us underestimate the number of records and accessibility of information in our lives. Cullen provides 28 categories and shows how to corral your information. The workbook is chockfull of assistance, providing direction and resources to prepare important documents and complete each section of the planner. For example, Get It Together helps you organize:

  • Information about children and other dependents
  • Employment and business interest records
  • Financial accounts, including retirement and pension plans
  • Real estate and personal property records
  • Email accounts, online bill-pay and other electronic information
  • Insurance policies
  • Biographical data
  • Will, trust and other estate planning documents
  • Preferences for final arrangements

Readers can use the CD-ROM to record information on their computers, then simply print their work and put it in a binder, along with related documents - such as birth certificates, vehicle title certificates, insurance policies, and financial statements.

Melanie Cullen has an MBA from Stanford University. Following 20 years in corporate management, she is a consultant in management and technology. An avid planner and organizer, she lives in Davis, California. Shae Irving has a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley. She joined the editorial staff at Nolo in 1994. She is the author or co-author of many Nolo books and products.

Nolo( is the nation's leading provider of do-it-yourself legal and business solutions for consumers and small businesses. Since 1971, Nolo has offered affordable, plain-English books, forms and software on a wide range of legal issues.

April 1, 2005 o Estate Planning/Family/Legal o Paperback with CD-ROM 350 Pages o $21.99 o ISBN: 1-4133-0105-3

[The mother's good friend] passed away a few days before Christmas. She did have all of her affairs in order, and Mom says she was so grateful for the insight and guidance your book provided.

Get It Together - Home Page Tips For Using News and Reviews Frequently Asked Questions Contact Melanie Buy the Book