Organizing Your Life for Your Death: 5 Things to Do Before You Die
Back in 2009, a Wall Street Journal reporter contacted me to ask for a quote for her estate-planning article “The Mess They Left” (“The Mess They Left” by Suzanne Barlyn, Wall Street Journal, Monday, April 13, 2009). At the time, I remarked that “No one is sitting around while they are alive preparing their items for someone to go through after they die.”
But why not? How can we possibly expect our families to know where to find important information if we don’t leave them a few bread crumbs? Yes, your family can wait for your mail to arrive to get bank and investment statements, but in an age where increasing amounts of important financial information is only online (think Bitcoin and NFTs), they may miss valuable online assets completely.
As an estate administration attorney, I see how difficult it is when surviving family members have to try to figure out where assets are located. There is an easier way. For years, my Mom has been the model of organization in terms of post-death preparations. She has collected information about her assets and has let me know where in her home to find the information. If you aspire to be as organized as my Mom is, here are five things that you can do to help your family administer your estate:
1. Make an asset notebook. Not on a computer, but an actual, physical three-ring binder or folder. This may seem like a daunting task, but there are many printable guides online that can help you get started if you search “organize financial information” (search in Amazon, Etsy, or Pinterest for organization products). In the folder, place one statement from each financial account you have; the declarations page of each insurance policy; beneficiary designations for pay on death accounts, life insurance policies, and pension and 401K plans; copies of your Will, health care proxy, and power of attorney; and, if you want to be really thorough, a copy of your tax returns for the last few years. Include information about a safe deposit box and where the keys can be located; the name and contact information for your estate planning attorney; passwords for any online financial accounts and for your phone. Also include details about funeral and burial plans in your notebook, including details on where to find a deed to a burial plot and details about a pre-paid funeral plan.
If you prefer to keep this binder in your safe deposit box, make sure you leave information at home about where the safe deposit box and keys are located.
Alternatively, you can use an online program like mint.com or quicken to keep your financial information. Those programs contain information about your accounts, some without showing the account number. This would give your family a roadmap, although it is not as good as a comprehensive financial binder.
Consider including a letter or a list of personal items that you want to go to certain individuals. Many Wills do not specify a distribution of personal property, leaving it up to the heirs to divide personal property among themselves. A letter indicating that you want certain items to pass to certain individuals is not binding, but it can provide some guidance to your family. If it is important that a specific person inherit a specific item, make sure that it is specified in your Will.
Going the extra mile: If you really want to collect all of the documents your fiduciary might need, make sure to include copies of the following documents in your asset binder (or a list of what documents exist) with instructions on where to locate the originals:
- Last Will & Testament
- Letter of instruction on tangibles
- Birth certificates
- Marriage certificates
- Citizenship papers
- Divorce/separation papers
- Adoption papers
- Social security numbers/cards
- Passports (numbers and expiration dates)
- Driver’s licenses (number, expiration dates)
- Military records
- Names/address/telephone numbers of healthcare professionals
- Healthcare proxies/living wills
- Medications (dosages, name of prescribing physicians, pharmacy, address/telephone
- Address and phone numbers of hospitals of choice
- Medicare numbers
- Medicaid numbers (caseworker numbers, address/telephone)
- Social worker or caseworker names and contact information
- Passwords, websites, and other digital information
- Income sources (retirement and/or disability benefits, Social Security, etc.)
- Financial assets (institution names, account numbers, address/telephone, form of ownership, current value) of cash, bank accounts, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, money market funds, retirement and pension plans, IRAs, annuities, life insurance
- Real Estate (property addresses, location of deeds, form of ownership, current value)
- Other assets (location of items/titles/documents/form of ownership, current value) including automobiles, boats, inheritances, precious gems, collectibles, household items, hidden valuables/items in storage, loans to family members/friends
- Liabilities (Creditor institutions, address/telephone, approximate debt) of mortgages, personal loans, credit cards, notes, IOUs, other)
- Trust documents
2. Keep a password book. Somewhere along the line, conventional wisdom said “don’t write down your passwords – someone will steal them!” The chances of having a burglar come into your home and steal your password book are small, whereas having passwords for your financial accounts will allow your executor to access important financial data without having to wait. REMEMBER: include the password for your phone. Two-factor authentication will stop your executor from having access to your online accounts if they are unable to verify due to being unable to access your phone.
3. Leave instructions for your social media accounts. E-mail, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Reddit, Tik Tok – there are so many places where we have an online presence. What do you want to do with that content after you die? Do you want to have someone shut down the account? Make a memorial page on Facebook? Or do you not want anyone to access your online accounts? If you want someone to manage your accounts, leave a list of all of your accounts, and all of your passwords, with instructions on what you want to be done with each account. Some social media platforms, like Facebook, allow you to name an individual to manage your account after your death.
4. Make a family tree. This is more of a concern for those who do not have an immediate family that will inherit. You don’t need an exhaustive family tree, but if you have the information handy, list your spouse, children, grandchildren, siblings, nephews and nieces, and aunts and uncles, with their current addresses, e-mails, and phone numbers. This is particularly important if you have a non-traditional family, with step-children, prior marriages, or non-marital children.
5. TELL YOUR PROPOSED EXECUTRIX WHERE THE BINDER IS LOCATED! All of the planning in the world won’t help if you hide the binder and no one knows where it is. You don’t have to tell your proposed fiduciary what is in the binder, you just have to let them know that you have prepared is a binder with financial information in case of your incapacity or death, and where it is located.
Losing you is going to be hard enough on your family members when it happens. Taking some or all of the above steps can make it just a little bit easier.
DISCLAIMER: This summary is not legal advice and does not create any attorney-client relationship. This summary does not provide a definitive legal opinion for any factual situation. Before the firm can provide legal advice or opinion to any person or entity, the specific facts at issue must be reviewed by the firm. Before an attorney-client relationship is formed, the firm must have a signed engagement letter with a client setting forth the Firm’s scope and terms of representation. The information contained herein is based upon the law at the time of publication.