There is no other way to put this—this is incredibly, mind numbing, hugely boring stuff. Most people put off doing this just as long a possible. And that’s the problem—put it off long enough and it becomes irrelevant to you, but an unwelcomed, rat’s nest to your heirs.
This last week, I attended an end-of–life workshop where some very interesting topics were covered. What was most evident is that the more care given to the arrangements you make prior to your eventual death, the easier it will be on your heirs and the more likely your last wishes will be carried out. You could even be the beneficiary if these arrangements have been made for your spouse and he/she precedes you in death.
I’m not going to go into details because so many of the legal aspects are determined by where you live. Pertinent laws and other requirements vary tremendously from one state to another. I do, however, think the checklist that was handed out provides great guidelines on what you need to consider. I have also added a couple of categories I have seen mentioned in other sources or have dealt with personally. Hopefully this checklist will make it easier to determine exactly what is needed to put your own affairs in order.
- Will/Trust—The most important legal document to put in place. You may also want to identify an executor of your will to oversee and manage your assets until they can be distributed.
- Letter of Instruction—This provides the executor and heirs all the details of your affairs that are not covered within your will. Identifies what (home, bills, pets, etc.) needs immediate attention following your death and provides information on how to best handle these things. Can also contain a list of the items you are distributing through your will, an estimate of their value, and a means to contact the company or person responsible for management or oversight of these assets. It may also include accounting of all legal documentation and detailed information associated with your life’s activities and resources. This identifies things like your bank accounts, credit card information, pension information, insurance policies, your broker, mortgage and debt holders. It can also provide the location of your safety deposit box, post office box, auto/RV/boat titles, marriage license, birth certificate, divorce/adoption/military documentation, your user names/passwords for important internet accounts, and anything else that will aid in identifying and locating your assets, obligations, legal papers, and last wishes. If you wish to have charitable donations made in your honor, this can be detailed here as well. Remember, this information is worthless unless you keep it up to date. Since some of this information is sensitive, you need to put this document in a safe, secure location, but be sure someone (executor) knows where it can be found upon your death.
- Durable Power of Attorney—Provides for the handling of your affairs by someone you designate if you become incapable or mentally disabled.
- A Power of Attorney—Gives another person (your agent) the legal right to act on your behalf. Can be general or specific in nature.
- Physician’s Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment—Pertains to current health problems and is typically developed after counseling with a physician to determine what life-sustaining treatment you do or do not want.
- Health Care Directive—Pertains to hypothetical health problems in the future and addresses patients choice of end-of-life medical treatments.
- Organ Donation—Arranges for your organs or tissues (corneas, skin, etc.) to be donated upon your death.
- Funeral Arrangements—A letter that details any funeral arrangements (more on this in future blog) you have made and directions on how you want your funeral handled and, if cremated, where you would like your ashes placed. You may also choose to write your own obituary (I know my dad did and I learned things about him I had never known). You may also want to leave a list of the people you want contacted upon your death.
- Safety Deposit Box—A place to secure all important legal paperwork or files. Talk to an attorney to determine what you should, or should not, keep in this box and how to best provide access to it in event of your death.
- Safe Place for things you do not want in Safety Deposit Box. Again, your attorney can advise you how to secure your important and legal documents.
- Have a Giant Yard Sale. My parents were raised during the depression and always had the attitude that you never threw anything away. I understand why my parents did this, but it was a nightmare after their death taking care of hundreds of cardboard boxes, home improvement leftovers, and cans of half-empty paint. Do everyone a favor and clear out your unused or useless possessions by having a big sale, giving them away, or hauling them to the dump.
- Distribute Memorabilia to Family Members. If you want family and friends to receive specific photos or other sentimental memorabilia, consider giving these items to those individuals well ahead of your demise. If you have hundreds of photos consider having them published in a photo book or saved onto a computer disk/flash drive so everyone can have a copy (more on this later).
So that’s it (and I’m sure I missed a few things)—a whole lot of work you would rather not have to do. You can start this process by contacting an attorney and decide what is best accomplished with their help or do your own research and see what online services, local advisors, or other assistance are available.
We have all heard war stories about how people had to go to literally go to war with each other over execution of someone’s will and some of the sad battles (with relatives or friends) that tore relationships apart. Best to bite the bullet and get these things done ASAP.