NEW YORK (MainStreet) — For as long as he could remember, Andrew Jacobson had to ring a gold bell that served to remind the family to gather for Sunday dinner. Johnson's grandfather Ezra Jacobson wanted to make sure that his then-teenaged grandson would someday receive the special dinner bell. So, in his estate planning, the elder Jacobson specifically stated that Andrew would be gifted the bell upon his death.

It's a heartwarming legacy, but an estimated 56% of families have no estate planning documents leaving their heirs unprotected, according to Forbes.com.

"A relative or step relative who has been estranged or not involved in the care-giving may show up to the funeral and demand a fair share," said Julieanne Steinbacher, a certified elder law attorney in Williamsport, Penn. "Without a proper plan in place, distant relatives may inherit more than your loved one would have intended."

In fact, the lack of estate planning documents can leave rightful heirs on the wrong side of inheritance law.

"With no will or trust providing asset distribution instructions, state intestacy laws determine who gets what," said Wendy Witt, an estate planning attorney in Pittsburgh. "This means you don't get to choose who receives your money, assets or personal property."

The law of intestacy is patterned after the common law of descent and varies state to state. Under it, property goes first or in major part to a spouse then secondly to children and their descendants. When there are no descendants, the rule sends you back up the family tree to the parents, the siblings, the siblings' descendants, the grandparents, the parents' siblings, the parents' siblings' descendants and so on.

"All people should have a health care and financial power of attorney and in some states, a mental health power of attorney," Steinbacher said. "A last will and testament is also necessary but it is just a default document that distributes assets from a person's estate."

The danger is that nosy neighbors, charities, friends, con artists and even unseemly clergy have been known to pounce on beneficiaries to get their hands on an inheritance.

"Or more commonly in blended families a second spouse inherits everything and the children from the first marriage are left in the cold financially," Witt said.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) reports that 48% of families have no inventory of possessions, and Benefitspro.com states that 45% of Americans have no financial plans at all.

"Taking steps to prepare for the unexpected will save you unnecessary stress and worry," said Michelle Perry Higgins, a financial planner. "In my many years as a financial planner, countless people have come into my office frantic, not knowing where to find important papers or data when the unfortunate occurs."

While an inventory of personal possessions isn't necessary, it is helpful for insurance purposes.

For example, basic insurance policies typically can't be revised or amended, so property and casualty insurance riders are implemented to cover assets not covered by the underlying policy like expensive jewelry, art collections and antiques.

"If you have special stuff which you want certain loved ones to receive then a listing of those possessions and inclusion of that list in your trust, will or special memorandum is a good idea," said Witt.

When writing an inventory of possessions is overwhelming, Witt advises enlisting the assistance of digital media.

"You can use an inexpensive video camera or even your phone to photograph all of your stuff then email the video to yourself or store it on a computer," Witt said. "You could also put the video on a thumb drive and store it at a trusted loved one's house."

Arriving in bookstores on November 1, The Everything Binder is an organizational tool that condenses estate planning documents, such as medical history, emergency contacts, insurance certificates, banking records, investments, debt, personal property, inventory of possessions, funeral arrangements and more.

"My clients' surviving family members have literally shed tears of joy and relief when I showed them that everything they needed was in The Everything Binder," said Higgins, creator of The Everything Binder. "It saved them the agony of having to hunt for that information during an already stressful time."

Estate planning documents to consider implementing:

  • Power of Attorney for finances and personal business matters
  • Revocable Living Trust
  • Business Power of Attorney when you own a business
  • Health Care Power of Attorney
  • HIPAA Release
  • Living Will
  • Organ Donation Authorization
  • Will
  • Standby Guardianship Documentation for parents of minor children
  • Temporary Guardian Authorization for parents of minor children

--Written by Juliette Fairley for MainStreet