Put Angst to Good Use and Organize What’s Most Important
Okay, let’s just get this over with, and talk about the skeleton, err, I mean elephant in the room. As long as we all have death and dying on our minds, as long as the pall of the pandemic is hanging over our communities like the sword of Damocles, as long as the Grim Reaper is lurking about keeping us shuttered in our homes with masks on, we might as well do something about it.
Plan A is don’t die. For sure that is my plan. But just in case, Plan B is if you’re going to die, please be organized about it. Note: On my tombstone I would like the words: “She didn’t leave a mess.”
While we’re all home wringing our hands like squeegee mops, let’s put our angst to good use, and think about the unthinkable, our untimely death (as if there were any other kind).
Prompting these uncharacteristically rational thoughts, this notion of organized dying, is that rational lawyer I live with.
On a recent day in the long string of recent days spent together sheltering in place, I came upon my husband, DC, typing diligently on his laptop at the kitchen table. I looked over his shoulder and saw the document title: “In Case of Death.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” I said.
“What?” he said, “You’re going to need this someday, and you’re going to thank me.” DC, a healthy young 61, has decades left, as far as I’m concerned.
I scan the contents, which include what attorney to call if he’s killed in an accident.
“Fine,” I said, “write one for me, too, while you’re at it.” Then the grown-up in the room decides now would be a good time to gather our other important papers and store them with our respective “In Case of Death” documents.
The fact that of all the organizing advice I have imparted and espoused over the years, whether for closets or kitchens or offices or garages, I have never covered this most important organizing act of all is not lost on me.
I dust off a decorative accordion file I find in the garage. It has a glossy botanical print pattern and a pretty clasp, and looks a lot better than boring banker brown ones, so I can go in style. Then, because choosing the container is where my expertise ends, I call Amy Davis, a wealth advisor with Resource Consulting Group, of Orlando, who is also an attorney and certified public accountant, to help me figure out what all should go inside.
“This pandemic has ushered in a great time for reflection,” Davis said. “We’re not commuting to work or school, and we’re not going to social events. While we’re missing those connections, we can use that time to look back on who and what matters, what our values are and what we’re grateful for.”
Here’s what Davis suggests everyone, regardless of age or circumstance, pull together, at a minimum, into one organized place:
Contact information for trusted advisors. Put the name and current contact information for your legal and financial advisors right on top of any file you create, Davis said. Point whoever will be in charge of your affairs in the right direction.
Your will. Forget the myth that wills are for rich people. Everyone should have one. A will simply advises and coordinates the distribution of your assets when you die, so the state doesn’t do the job for you. It also appoints guardians for minor children, and names your executor, the person you want to oversee your financial affairs.
Trust documents (if you have them). A key difference between a will and a trust is that a will is a public document that anyone can see. If you don’t want the world to know you left Cousin Susie $50,000, set up a trust, then say in your will that all directives are in your trust. A revocable trust can give you more control over when and how your beneficiaries receive assets.
Your prenuptial or marital agreement (if you have one). These are critical to have in cases of blended families.
Asset list and insurance policies. Create an inventory of your bank accounts – savings, checking, retirement – and include where they’re held, account numbers, and how to access them. Include other assets such as real estate, stocks, annuities, pensions, cash under the loose plank on the bottom stair, and any other resources tucked away. Life insurance policies and long-term care policies should go inside, as well as information to access your safe deposit box.
Digital access. Because so much important information lies locked in our mobile phones and computers, leave your designated loved one your usernames and passwords. List all online subscriptions and auto-renewing memberships that should be cancelled.
Advanced directives. This document, also known as a living will, conveys your end-of-life wishes, including whether you want extraordinary measures taken to prolong your life. Here you can name whom you want to be in charge of your end-of-life decisions. “It doesn’t have to be your closest relative. Sometimes it’s better if it is not,” Davis said. “In this age of COVID-19, having an advanced directive is important since loved ones are not allowed to visit those in the hospital.”
A last letter. This supplements your will and explains why you did what you did, Davis said. “It’s a here’s-what-I-was-thinking letter.” Though not legally binding, this is where you clarify why you left more or less to one relative, chose a certain guardian, or left everything you own to the gorilla sanctuary. In short, this is your last word.
Of course, don’t take my word for it. Check with an attorney. Then put all the papers in a pretty box. Be sure key people in your life know where it is, and hope no one needs it for a very long time.
CAPTION: The Key Please -- Because so much important information lies locked in our mobile phones and computers, be sure a trusted loved one knows how to access yours in case you can’t. Photo courtesy of Sergey Vasilyev for Dreamstime.