I am about to come into several million dollars. I have never had this large an amount of money at one time before in my life and do not know what to do, where it needs to go for safety and how it make the most for my family's future while keeping all of those lost relatives from getting their hands on it. -- Name Withheld
With millions of dollars on its way, the good news is that you can now pay off any nagging credit-card debts and buy yourself a shiny new car.
The bad news is that you will have to fight off innumerable hucksters and scalawags and start worrying about your own demise.
This enviable predicament might seem like a pipe dream to many. But with the incredible amount of wealth that's been created in the past few decades, many adults will soon be facing similar situations as parents start passing on their wealth to the next generation.
Before you go on a spending spree at
or take off for Nevis, you'll need to decide who is going to handle your money while you're alive and who gets it when you're gone.
First and foremost, don't tell a lot of people about your windfall.
By inheriting or winning a large sum of money, you become a natural target for people who would like to get their hands on that money. (The reader's name was intentionally withheld from this article.)
The fewer people who know about your newfound wealth, the fewer people you have to worry about asking you for loans and donations.
"There will be a lot of people -- family members and organizations -- coming to you with their hands out," says Paula Kennedy, a senior manager with
Ernst & Young
in Minneapolis. "I would personally try to keep it as quiet as I could."
You don't have to take a vow of silence, but you should be selective about who you tell. The more people who know about your new money, the more pitches you'll get for products and services that you probably don't need. If some long-lost relative isn't asking for the money to buy a new pickup truck, a salesman will try to sell you a filtration system for a pool that you don't even have.
Don't feel obligated to buy any financial products immediately. Your money is perfectly safe sitting in a money-market account.
If you don't have a will, you'll need to get one immediately.
By drawing up a will, you decide who gets your money after you are gone and how much each person receives. If you die without one, your state's laws will dictate who gets that booty.
"If you don't have a will, the state will write one for you," says John Olivieri, an attorney with the law firm of
in New York. "The laws say who gets your property and they may not be the people who you want to benefit."
If you die without a will in New York, for example, your spouse will get just over half of your money, while the other half will go to your children.
If you have teenagers, you probably don't want them suddenly flush with cash. Writing a will lets you decide who gets what when you're gone.
Additional Plans for Your Estate
Once you set up a will, you should take additional steps to reduce the amount of taxes your heirs will pay at your death.
Right now, you get to pass along $675,000 free of gift and estate taxes, either during your lifetime or at your death. (That amount will climb to $1 million by 2006.)
However, your estate passes to your spouse estate-tax free anyway. If you're leaving your entire estate to your spouse, then you may not be taking advantage of this estate-tax exemption. If you die without using your exemption, it's useless to your spouse once you're gone.
A simple way to rectify this is by making sure that exemption amount (now $675,000) is held back in trust for a spouse or others.
You can also make $10,000 gifts each year to friends and family members free of gift taxes, which is another way to reduce the size of your taxable estate.
You can take advantage of
myriad trusts that can be used to pass along your money and reduce the estate-tax bill. For example, a grantor retained annuity trust, or
GRAT, is one tool used to minimize estate taxes on income-producing assets or a burgeoning stock portfolio.
To construct a will and examine various trust options, you'll need to get some professional help, namely a good trusts and estates lawyer and an accountant. One or two trusted advisers can also help you pick money managers who will invest your assets.
Start by talking to an attorney or accountant you currently use for advice and referrals. You should think about interviewing five or more professionals before hiring any additional help.
If you have no one to contact, you can use
referral service at 800-742-6262, which can help you locate a trusts and estates attorney.
Before you invest one cent, you'll have to decide what your goals are for this money. This exercise applies to any investor, whether you have millions or not.
Make a list. What do you want to accomplish with this money? How much income will you need every year? How much do you want to leave to your children? What do you want to give to charity?
Your attorney and accountant should be able to help you create this list of wants and needs. And you should have it ready before you sit down with a money manager.
Take Your Time
You shouldn't feel like you have to get all of this planning and investing done tomorrow.
"Take time to do your research and due diligence," says Patricia Angus, counsel to New York law firm
Hughes and Whitaker
. "It's OK to sit in cash."
If you are new to financial planning and investing, you should read through a helpful guide or two.
The Wall Street Journal Guide to Understanding Personal Finance
is a great choice for a novice and explains all the basics.
Above all else, enjoy yourself.
Dear Dagen aims to provide general fund information. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell funds or other securities.