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Acknowledging one’s own mortality is difficult in the best of times, but realizing how hard it will be for those left behind may be just the motivation needed to prepare for the unexpected. A systematic approach to planning offers peace of mind for all.
My wife’s cousin and his wife retired several years ago to rural Western North Carolina. They bought a small house at the end of a gravel road, with a porch along the front looking out on the Blue Ridge Mountains.
David loved trees. He’d been a city manager in South Carolina for most of his adult life, but his passion was really for the Southeastern woods. He had a pension from working for the city, plus they’d managed to accumulate some savings along the way, and he was finally getting to do what he loved.
He threw much of his energy into trying to eliminate the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, a beetle that infests hemlocks in the Blue Ridge, and became the executive director of the Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance.
Then one day he was out on his property watching a local man take down three tall pines. One of the trees was split at the top—what they call a “widow maker”—and it came whistling down in the wrong direction. It killed him instantly. David was 64 years old.
That day, besides losing her life-long partner, David’s wife, Brenda, was suddenly lost in another way. Unexpectedly, she had to carry on the family’s financial, legal and household life alone.
Picking Up the Pieces
When David died, my wife saw how difficult things were for Brenda, not just emotionally but practically, as she tried to pick up the remaining pieces and keep going. That was when Paulette started researching books on keeping track of essential family information.
There are many books out there on the subject, but she came across one called Get It Together – Organize Your Records So Your Family Won’t Have To, by Melanie Cullen (4th Ed. Nolo 2010). She ordered it from Amazon and handed it to me, the family treasurer. Then she’d ask every few days if I’d taken a look at it. I kept avoiding the subject; such a project seemed like a great deal of work. Finally, one day I opened the book and started reading.
The book came with a CD, which included a template entitled “My Planner.” The first section of the Planner summarized the matters that would have to be handled in the event I was gone, and when. I customized this to read “Instructions for Paulette,” and from that moment I was hooked. I realized I was doing something for the woman I love that would support her emotionally if suddenly I couldn’t.
The First 48 Hours
The Instructions for Paulette go straight to matters she’d need to address right away, in the first couple of days. The first words I wrote, taken straight from the book, were: “These are some of the important tasks you will have to handle in the first 48 hours following my incapacity or death.” I was talking directly and plainly to Paulette now, in one possible version of our future lives.
The First 48 Hours directs her to the section of My Planner regarding organ donation and how that is accomplished, and to a section which provides details about cremation—like timing (before or after the memorial service), contact information for the cremation organization, where I’d like my ashes scattered, and whether I’d desire some kind of marker. There’s a section that outlines my thoughts on having a service and a possible location for one, along with contact information.
As soon as she starts thinking about these things, I know she’ll have concerns about cost. So the instructions point her first to the section that holds my life insurance information and the name and number of our agent so she can get a claim going as soon as possible. Then they direct her to the section on bank accounts, most of which are in joint tenancy, and corresponding passwords. The instructions also cover such basic things as arranging for a death certificate, why she’ll need one (for getting the life insurance proceeds, among other things), and the government website she can use to obtain one. They remind her to have someone call my office to tell them what’s happened. Finally, there’s a section on publishing an obituary, though I confess I haven’t given that one any thought yet.
Having addressed the immediate tasks at hand, the Instructions for Paulette then point her to Planner sections that will help her deal with other matters in the two or so weeks following my death—wills; bank and brokerage accounts; Social Security; credit cards; bills and debts; my law office.
Section 4, for example—Wills—contains copies of our wills, a summary sheet telling when they were prepared, where other copies are located, the names of the executor and alternative executor and, if she needs to name a different one, the time period in which she must do that. This section contains a thumbnail summary of our testamentary plan, and a copy of the letter I’ve written to the friend of ours who’s agreed to serve as executor. I’ve included the name and contact information of an attorney friend who can help her with various reporting and transfer issues that may arise, or simply be available to answer her questions. There are also sections containing my health care directive and power of attorney for financial matters, in the event I’m incapacitated but still living.
In the section on Social Security, there’s a summary sheet with our Social Security numbers and an estimate of the benefits we’ll receive, along with my most recent Social Security statement. There’s a reference to the website, www.socialsecurity.gov, and instructions telling her where and how to collect survivor’s benefits, including a Google map to the nearest office The section titled Insurance contains all of our insurance policies in addition to my life insurance—cars, houses (we also have a home in Florida), umbrella liability, and health insurance. There is a summary sheet in this section listing important details about each of the policies.
The Instructions also direct her to a section headed Passwords, knowing that she’d be at a loss if she couldn’t access all of our accounts and online addresses. This section contains financial account passwords, as well as the passwords to my email account and website.
Month One & Beyond
Then there are the matters that probably won’t require immediate attention, including real estate (Section 9), vehicles (Section 10) and taxes (Section 12), among other things.
The Real Estate folder contains the property
abstract for our house in Minneapolis, as well as a copy of the warranty deed and information regarding our mortgage and monthly payments, along with the warranty on the roof we recently replaced. There are similar documents pertaining to the house in Florida, with a reference back to the insurance section, containing our hurricane and flood policies as well as other insurance covering the property there. The vehicle section has information relevant to our cars—the titles, who we’re paying monthly payments to, how much, and when they’re withdrawn from our checking account, as well as automobile warranty information. The section on taxes contains similar necessary information: the name and number of our accountant, the last several years’ returns, and information pertaining to quarterly estimates paid to date.
The section of My Planner dealing with my law office (I’m in private practice) has the location of my building entry card and keys, where I keep my calendar so someone can cancel appointments, and how to access my voice mail and computer files. There’s also a rough summary of what’s in the different drawers of my file cabinet, a list of current and long-term clients with phone numbers and email addresses, and contact information for lawyer friends who could help when questions arise regarding transitional issues.
Peace of Mind
One of the first things I had to figure out when I sat down to start My Planner was where to put all of this disparate information. In the end, I opted for an eight-and-a-half by eleven expandable “red rope” file, the kind I use for legal matters, with individual sections on different subjects in labeled manila folders. That way everything is in one central place.
But the big and, for me, most unexpected benefit of doing My Planner was that, once I had all of my important information in one folder, I automatically started to use it regularly. When a new mutual fund report comes in, there’s a central place to put it: Section 6 in my case. When next year’s homeowner’s policy arrives, I know just where it goes. If something comes up and I need to refer to it, I know immediately where it is. No longer do I have to undertake that mad, blind scramble—looking for the absolutely necessary document I’ve got to have now, which unfortunately could be anywhere.
I’ve often drafted wills and trusts for families trying to put their affairs in order. While these necessary documents say who’s going to get what and when, and take care of things like naming trustees and guardians, it’s become increasingly clear to me how inadequate they’ll be in the immediate crush of loss. What will life be like when the husband or wife is thrown into the herculean task of managing life’s daily obstacle course alone? The Planner—by speaking directly and simply into the future, and not only telling the survivor what to do next, but providing the information to do it – is the best solution to that conundrum I’ve come across. In the end, the real benefit of undertaking such a project is peace of mind.
John F. (Jeff) Alden (www.JFALawfirm.com) is a Minneapolis lawyer practicing primarily in the areas of business and business litigation.