Sally stood in the cluttered Boston living room. Everywhere she looked, her eyes rested on another exotic piece of sculpture or art. And each one had a story. Her Aunt Elisabeth had shared some of them over long dinners, each paired with the perfect wine. But others would remain a mystery. She was no longer there to tell them.
Elisabeth was a widow. She and Arthur had traveled the world endlessly, enjoying the money from the businesses they had sold. Having no children, as they aged, they drew closer to their only niece, Sally. And after Arthur died, Elisabeth counted on her more and more.
Sally knew she was the sole heir. But she never wanted them to think her caring was linked to what she would inherit, so she never brought up the topic.
Never asked any questions. Lately, she watched envelopes pile up on the antique desk as Elisabeth became less and less engaged in everyday life. Standing there, all Sally could hope was that she would find carefully prepared files that would document this well-lived life.
The hush-hush nature of death: Losing a loved one is difficult, no matter what. Having to tie up loose ends without a map multiplies that difficulty tenfold.
As Americans, our nature is to be ever-optimistic. And death has no place in that optimism, so it doesn’t find a way into our dialog. And when it does, we call it “passing away” or “departing” or “meeting our maker.”
Preparing the ultimate gift: Regardless of how our culture deals with death, we have the power individually to deny the denial. We may not know when death will occur. But we can accept that eventually, someone will have to enter our private space and deal with the details of our life.
And the most loving thing we can do is provide all the information and documentation in writing, so all doubt is removed, and let them know where to find the information. If you don’t want to review everything with them, fine. But do let them know you have done what you can to lessen the burden.
Let’s look at how we can achieve that.
Taking stock of all you own: Having a will is not enough. You have lived a lifetime making buying and selling decisions. Opening and closing bank accounts. Making financial choices. An inventory of what you own – one that you review every six months or so and update – will simplify the task for whoever is handling your affairs. To prepare that inventory:
• List the value of your home and other real estate, along with cars, jewelry, artwork, and other physical assets.
• Gather recent statements from your bank, brokerage, and retirement accounts.
• Include the location and contents of any safety deposit boxes or safes.
• Make a list of all insurance policies, noting their cash values and death benefits.
• List all liabilities, including mortgages, lines of credit, and other debt.
Providing Digital Access: In the past decade or two, our lives have become increasingly digital. And, because of privacy concerns, digital platforms can make it nearly impossible to access accounts without a lengthy process to prove your authority. To make accessing your digital “estate” easier:
• Keep a list of your online accounts and passwords for banks, credit cards, utilities, health records, and any others – and tell someone where it is.
• Document your social media profiles, name “legacy” contacts wherever you can
Identifying your team of advisors: Over time, we build a support team of professionals whom we call on for different aspects of our lives. Some will be indispensable to the person handling our estate. Make a list of the names and contact information of those team members, such as:
• CPA or tax preparer
• Financial advisor(s), preferably a Certified Financial Planner
• Insurance professionals (such as life, long-term care, auto, and home)
• Doctors and other health care professionals
Gathering critical documents: Having everything in one place and in writing could be the greatest gift to the person you have entrusted with closing out the “official” aspect of your life.
The list is long, but the vast majority only has to be collected and filed away once. (A few may require periodic updating when something changes.) The list includes:
• Estate-planning documents (such as trust, will, power of attorney, and healthcare proxy)
• Your final wishes
• Your beneficiaries
• The contact list of your team of advisors
• Your digital estate locations
• Balance-sheet information, including account numbers for banks, brokerage accounts, insurances, and others
• Copies of your last five to 10 years of tax filings
• Military discharge papers, if relevant
• Birth and marriage certificates (plus copies of the death certificate added later)
• Social Security statements and any related paperwork
• Copies of titles and deeds for all property, including auto, home, and others
• Copies of your driver’s license and passport, if you have one
While this looks like a lot of work, it doesn’t have to be done all at once. And, we don’t deny that it requires organization and dedication. But it pales in comparison with the work you will leave your loved ones if you haven’t left a trail for them to follow.