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Expat essentials. Writing a will. Defining Moves - The Art of Successful relocation. Information, inspiration and resources for the global expat family, trailing spouse, accompanying partner, global services manager, relocation service provider, destinations service provider.. you get the picture.

(Often Ignored) Expat Essentials – Writing a Will.

Yes, I know. You don’t want to think about it, much less talk about it, which is why I have been getting shifty looks from most of my expat network this week when I asked them the seemingly simple question: “Do you have a will?” Want to know how many people said “Yes”?

Two. Out of about thirty people, all of whom have high net worth, children from at least one relationship, and often dual citizenship / resident status. A little worrying, no? 

I can’t claim the moral high ground – we recently unearthed our Will, dusty from 10 years in an unmarked cardboard box in a storage container in Walthamstow. Not exactly accessible in the event of our demise, and even worse, was so out of date that the paperclip holding it together was rusty and the Feisty One was not even mentioned. So on her behalf, I am doing something about it… Here goes.

Expat essentials. Writing a will. Defining Moves - The Art of Successful relocation. Information, inspiration and resources for the global expat family, trailing spouse, accompanying partner, global services manager, relocation service provider, destinations service provider.. you get the picture. I have a new dirty word: intestate. For those of you who have been living a carefree life of blissful indifference, it’s what happens when you don’t have a will. For non-expats, the implications are unpleasant: it gives the state responsibility and control over the division of your estate, decisions about who will take care of your dependents, the timeframe it all happens and (of course) access to a large chunk of your assets via taxes.

It’s a simple fix – a Will. It’s the document that tells those left behind what you want to happen to your dependents and estate.  Most of us overthink it, imagining a torturous process requiring three weeks of desperate hunting for title deeds and old bank statements. Nothing could be further from the truth – the best wills are simple statements of intent, which give executors something to work with and a few clues about where you have hidden your treasure. Combine that with a good estate planning lawyer and you will create a plan that saves everyone time, money and heartache at a time when they are most vulnerable.

Introducing first part of the Defining Moves “Ducks in a Row” program. Our aims are simple:

  • To inspire you to act. Right now. Because this is important.
  • To get you to the lawyer on time. We want to prompt to you think, discuss, list and plan, so that any legal advice you get is based on reality, not just the bits you could remember in the car on the way to the lawyer’s office. And make sure that when whoever prepares your will asks a question, you know the answer and are not paying $300 per hour for them to watch you think about it / argue with your spouse / try to remember whether or not you mailed the last life insurance premium.

So grab your pencil and paper, and let’s get started…

 

Step one: The People.

There are three groups of people you need to consider when drafting a Will;

  1. your dependents
  2. your beneficiaries
  3. your executors

 

Dependents.

These are the people who rely on you for some sort of care, support and/or protection. Traditionally, these were children still living at home, but modern families are often complicated with blended families, shared custody arrangements, adoptive children, elder relatives and even pets added to the mix. Thankfully, lawyers have seen it all before, and, even better if you have a family as nutty as mine, are sworn to secrecy…

Make of the list of those who you are responsible for, whether physically, socially, financially or legally, and the type of care you provide. Keep it simple – the rest can be figured out later – at this stage, your task is to create a comprehensive list.

Now list any special circumstances that will have to be addressed.  For many families, this may involve shared custody, child support or special needs but for expats there may also be issues of differing nationalities, citizenship and resident status that may have tax and legal implications.

For those of you with your own business, bear in mind that you may also have professional responsibility for continuity of care of clients – check your licensing organization or professional code of conduct if you are unsure.

 

Beneficiaries.

Your beneficiaries are the recipients of your estate – usually immediate descendants, siblings, friends and charities. Typically, assets are divided equally between your children, so if you want to use a different split, make this clear to your lawyer so that they can prevent your will being subject to legal contest. Note also that laws differ about division of assets when you die intestate – half siblings, step and adoptive children are often treated differently, and the portion of the estate automatically assigned to the spouse varies widely internationally.

If you have any other people or organizations who you want to leave money to, add them to your list now.

 

Executors, Financial Guardians and Legal Guardians.

It’s your group of guardian angels, so pick wisely. These are people who you trust to administer your estate and make sure your wishes are carried out, to care for your dependents and to manage the finances of the beneficiaries if they are unable to do so. The roles carry huge responsibility, so discuss whether or not your intended choices are both willing and able. They can be family members, friends or lawyers; typically, lawyers are paid (and aren’t given custody of the children…) whereas family and friends are less likely to be.

Note that guardianship differs from child custody: while custody refers to the physical care provided by a parent (who may have no legal powers), legal guardianship may involve physical and/or legal custody, and continues until the child reaches adulthood or the guardian’s death. By contrast, especially in the modern family, custody is far more flexible and changes according to the situations of the parents.

Here’s where expats need to be especially careful, because the local laws may be very different to those of your home nation and custody / guardianship arrangements and next of kin may not follow familiar rules. In the UAE, for instance, if no will is in place, Sharia law prevails, meaning that assets and custody of children potentially follow the male line – your husband / partner’s parents, brothers and sisters. How is your relationship with your mother-in-law, by the way?

 

Step Two: The Money

Your estate is the sum total of your assets, and while many of you will be rolling your eyes that I am pointing out the obvious, I can guarantee that there will be plenty of things that you will have forgotten. The temptation is to run to the filing cabinet / junk drawer and fish out the most recent bank statement, and start noting down numbers, but don’t. Your assets are constantly changing, so you only need to include categories – current and savings accounts, property, jewelry stocks, shares, businesses, investment accounts, life insurance, digital assets (websites, videos etc) – and where those assets are held. For a starter list, click here for pdf cheat sheet.

While you are making your list, make note of who your beneficiaries are, and how they are reported. Typically, life insurance goes to the spouse, but in a world where divorce rates run at about 45%, there are a huge number of exes who are still listed as primary beneficiary. Take note, and make any necessary changes…

 

Step Three: The Decisions

Now that you have the information, you can start making decisions about how to pass on your legacy, human or otherwise. Your key priorities are the welfare of your dependents, so start with those and work from there.

Guardianship of dependents.

Who do you want to care for your dependents if you are no longer around to do so? Depending on the complexity of your family and the types of dependents, there may be more than one answer to this question, so set it all out clearly, naming each dependent individually. Talk to all the parties concerned before you head to the lawyer’s office – you may be surprised to hear who your children would hate to live with, or which relative is intending to move to Outer Mongolia next month – to prevent return visits. Factors that may affect your decision are not just emotional – also consider location (how will your children feel about leaving the country, for instance), age and health of potential guardians, relationship with other friends and family, support network and financial ability to provide care.

Include financial provision for your dependents and decide who you want to manage your estate for them if they are still minors. In many cases, life insurance helps to cover the cost of raising children, but once you include the cost of college education it may not go as far as you think.

Financial, legal and professional dependent provision will require discussion with your lawyer and with those who you nominate to take over; the good news is that if planned in advance, the process is straightforward (and certainly infinitely preferable to leaving your legal advisor / executor to try to unravel the mess in your absence).

 

Step Four: The Division

This is the fun bit, providing you have money to leave. But before you start divvying up between your offspring and the local cat protection league, here are a few pointers:

  1. Remember that your debts and liabilities (taxes, funeral expenses, etc) will be deducted from your estate before the remainder is distributed. You can offset many of these by establishing a Trust, which will will talk about in the next chapter, but for the moment, just remember to include your loans, debts and other obligations when you are cataloging your estate.
  2. Ensure that you own your assets outright before you will them away. Anything jointly owned needs careful consideration to avoid passing on a headache rather than a well-intentioned gift. If you hadn’t already discussed future plans with the co-owner(s), now is the time to do so.
  3. Now is not the time to make a point. Sure, you may have favorites, but remember that in many cases you are not just leaving behind a bequest, but a lifetime of family discord and ill-feeling – not to mention legal challenges. It may seem a lovely idea to leave the bulk of your estate to your newest grandchild/ favorite nephew or next door neighbor, but the resulting fallout can often sour the best of intentions. The same rules apply for property – find out which mementos, furniture or jewelry are most loved by your friends and family, and divide accordingly, informing all of them who has been given what. That way, any discussions, disagreements or disappointments can be directed at you, rather than unwitting recipients.
  4. While we are on the subject of leaving objects to people, think carefully about whether they want them, and the responsibility you are handing over. It’s difficult to part with things, no matter how ugly, unwanted or expensive to maintain without feeling disloyal to the person who gifted it.

Now you have done the difficult bit, it’s time to put pen to paper and make a rough outline to take to the lawyer’s office. If you are an expat, you may be advised to get legal input from both your home and host nation perspective – while the laws of your home nation usually take precedence, extended residence overseas may change the rules, so be sure to explain the situation rather than making assumptions.

You need to include:

  • Your name, and identifying details (usually your address, but if you are an expat, you will need to clarify your domicile (primary place of residence) with an experienced lawyer – it has significant tax and legal implications.
  • Names of beneficiaries; the people and organizations you want to leave your assets (whether money, housing, land, stock options, digital assets etc ).
  • The name of your executor (the person responsible for making sure your wishes are met).
  • Guardians of your dependents – Legal and physical.
  • Who gets what.
  • Your legal advisor should also include a “residual clause” that states the recipient for any assets you forgot to mention, or have been accrued since you wrote your will. “I bequeath any residue to” should take care of it.
  • Signature and date, with initials and date on every page.

Congratulations if you made it to this point- you are well on your way. In the next post, we’ll be introducing the fun stuff.. Planning your funeral, Living Wills and frustrating the tax man.

Bet you can hardly wait.

 

Further Resources:

Nolo.com – Legal encylopedia – Wills

USA.gov – advice on writing both social media and regular wills.

UK Citizens Advice Bureau information on writing a will.

Australia. gov – Resources on wills and power of attorney

expat finance - money for nothing. Defining Moves, the art of successful relocation. Information, inspiration and resources for the expat trailing spouse, accompanying partner and relocating family.

Expat Finance – Money for Nothing.

Expat life plays havoc with your finances. Often you are paid in one currency but live day-to-day with another, creating a budget is impossible when you have no idea what you will need or what anything costs, and trying to keep track of your spending when you have to establish a whole new life, home and family is virtually impossible.

expat finance - money for nothing. Defining Moves, the art of successful relocation. Information, inspiration and resources for the expat trailing spouse, accompanying partner and relocating family.Every time you relocate, your expenses peak sharply – flights, hotels, car hire, home furnishings, increased fuel consumption while looking for houses.. The list is endless, and those of you who keep financial records will bear me out. And while many of these fees are paid directly by the relocating company, there are plenty that you will pay and claim back or generally be stuck with. So if you are going to have to pay out, you might at least get some benefits.

Here’s the harsh reality about expat finance. When you move to a new country, your credit history will (almost certainly) revert to zero, you will need vast amounts of documentation to open any sort of financial account, and if you are an accompanying partner you may not be eligible for an independent account. However, bear with me, because I have goods news. Used wisely, credit cards can not only make your financial life easier, but they will reward you for your excellent management..

It’s an approach that I have been using for the last two years, and I have a very nice dining table and sideboard to prove it – bought with the cash back earned simply by routing our household spending through our credit rather than debit cards, and enjoying the additional benefits of fraud and faulty goods protection while I’m at it. So if you too would like revenge on the credit card issuers who gouged you mercilessly when you were young(er) and naive, read on..

There are a number of rules in my devious master plan;

1. Get a no-fee credit card.

The earlier you have some form of local credit on record, the longer your credit history will be and, providing you manage it well, the better the rates for any future loans that you apply for will be. However, note that every application for credit causes a temporary dip in your credit score, so if you are applying for any other loans (car loan, mortgage etc., you might want to hold off until after those loans have been approved. The higher interest rate on your credit card won’t matter, because you won’t be carrying a balance from month to month, and so won’t incur charges. As for cards that charge a monthly fee, I can only ask why, when there are so many no-fee cards out there?

2. Don’t be tempted to take out store cards.

They may be easier to get, but the low credit limit and the additional pull on your credit score will hurt your credit history in the short term, and the benefits are less transferable. Keep to one card, at least in the early days. There is plenty of time to shop around later, once you have perfected your technique.

3. Sign up for online access.

For those of us who know the color of the carpet in half the airports of the world, the ability to check accounts at any time of the day or night is vital. More importantly, it allows you to keep a very close eye on your balance, your transactions and your spending patterns, which makes keeping financial accounts far easier.

4. Have Good fraud protection.

This is also essential, especially when you live in countries with high levels of internet and card fraud. Go for one that allows you to dispute a transaction online, immediately and 24 hours a day, without having to wait in a call centre queueing system. Also, check the small print for liability – in the US, Federal Law guarantees zero liability for incidences where there card details have been stolen, and $50 when the card has been lost or stolen. Note, however, that this is reliant on you notifying them within a specified time after the transaction takes place. Hence the need for online account access…

5.Get on the Cash Back Rewards Program.

Okay, so it doesn’t have to be cash back, but I have toyed with various other options (air miles, ) and became so fed up with the seemingly impossible task of redeeming them that now I just demand cash and buy budget flights from whomever I choose. A decent cash back program will offer between 1 and 2% of spend, and while that doesn’t sound like very much, when you add up the costs of relocating and regular daily expenses, you will be astonished at just how much you can gain.

6. Monitor your account activity.

We use our credit card like a debit card, and keep a close eye on our budget. For those of you who don’t have any idea what you spend from month to month, logging all your spending on one card means that someone else is keeping tabs on the money going out, and financial clarity is only a mouse click away.

It’s not just about catching fraudulent activity – you need to think of your credit card statement as a bank statement or cash flow report, and know when you have reached your limit. The detail on the statements allow you immediate, accurate access to your day-to day spending – vital information for creating an accurate financial plan and proactive financial management.

7. Pay the balance in full, every month.

No ifs, no buts. Carrying a balance from one month to the next will wipe out any benefits of the cash back immediately – it’s what the banks are counting on when they make the offer. If you can’t pay it off immediately, don’t buy it, because credit card interest rates are the most expensive ways of borrowing next to payday loans and loan sharks. If you are worried about how disciplined you can be, start small and get in the habit of monitoring your money at least weekly.

8. Keep to the credit card payment schedule.

Watch the due dates closely, because any payment before the monthly statement is issued won’t register against that statement. It sounds complicated, but the credit card company requires you make a payment between certain dates, so while you can make additional payments to keep the balance down throughout the month, make sure you make a payment according to the bank’s schedule. So, if your statement is issued on the 20th of the month, for payment by the 30th, payments made on the 19th may not count, and you may incur late payment or even missing payment fees and delinquent notices. Sounds crazy, but it’s true, so watch out for it.

9. Keep records.

Credit card companies don’t make money from good money managers, so read the fine print carefully, and remember that the minute you close your account, you will lose access to your financial records. So while the online access is vital to keeping track of your money, you may need paper records for tax and reimbursement purposes. Many unwary expats have been caught out when they close an account in preparation for leaving a country, only to discover that the instant their agreement ends, they no longer can access their past financial history with that credit company. If you will need records in the future, print off paper statements at regular intervals, up to the point when you terminate your agreement.

As someone who spent her 20’s and 30’s juggling due dates on credit and store cards and constantly dropping the financial ball, there is something intensely satisfying about turning the tables and not only using their resources to keep control of the money, but also make them pay for the privilege. Finally, a reason to smile when you open your credit card card statement..

Smug, moi?

 Photo courtesy of George Eastman House

Want More?

Learn How to Limit Your Credit Card Fraud Liability

Preventing Credit Card Fraud Guide

How to Get the Most From Cash Back Credit Cards

Avoid these 7 Cash Back Credit Card Traps

Good Credit: Because nobody should have to wear a bike helmet

It’s official.  I look like a 21 year old. Well, on paper at least. Today, I checked my credit score, and have finally achieved one that will allow me to get a cellphone contract. Or a car loan, which frankly is a relief, because nobody looks good in a bike helmet..

Please don’t judge me. I keep a monthly spreadsheet, have fortnightly meetings with a financial advisor, have an annual spending plan, and a spotless payment history. So where, I hear you ask, did I go wrong.

I moved. Simple as that. After twelve years of gainful employment, paying a mortgage, paying the bills, balancing the checkbook and building an excellent credit history, I moved abroad and became a nobody. In Kenya, cash was king, cell phones were pay as you go and the Forex people were very flexible, so all was well. But enter the US, and the rot starts to set in.

Here, the idea of someone entering the credit system at the geriatric age of 35 is deeply suspicious, and tantamount to treason. This is, after all, the home of the 24 hour mall and more shopping channels than you can shake a stick at, all offering zero down and easy payment terms.

Just not for me.

I had to put $800 deposit down just to be allowed a cellphone that wasn’t pay as you go, and don’t even get me started on what a zero credit rating does to your car insurance rates. I did, however, get issued with a fuel card by the Other Half’s employer, with the dizzying credit limit of… $300. I have to pay it off twice a month just to stay on the road.

But not anymore.. The world is now my oyster, and I can finally apply for a credit card without risk of rejection. But I have to choose carefully, because I only get one chance. You see, applying for a credit card reduces your credit score, so once I do, it’s back to credit oblivion…