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“Nothing in life is certain except death and taxes.”
“Always plan ahead. It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark.”
Last month we talked about clearing clutter, and organizing our lives. Now let’s talk about organizing for our end-of-life and rethinking our approach to it.
As lawyers, we routinely advise our clients to have a will or trust, powers of attorney, and a living will. We explain how these documents allow them to do tax planning, decide who will be guardian of their children, who cares for their pets, who gets their treasured items and the rest of their property after they die, etc. We advise them to pick a qualified personal representative, give that person a copy of their will, keep the original in a safe, and known, place. We tell them to review their will yearly, maybe on New Year’s Day, or their birthday, to make sure it still does what they want, because life changes things.
Despite all of this great advice we give our clients, many of us don’t have these documents ourselves. Yup, the shoemakers’ kids go barefoot, along with famous folks like Aretha Franklin, who died last year with $80 million and no will.
Even fewer of us have made other end-of-life plans, although they are just as important for those we leave behind. Wills don’t contain the minutia of life, and won’t be read until after the funeral anyway. We neglect to have master lists of our assets and passwords (the keys to our digital kingdoms of Facebook/Google/Instagram accounts, financial accounts, etc.), outlines of funeral services and preparations, grave site choice, etc. Nobody likes to think about dying, but our chances of dying are 100%. Since we don’t know when our time will be up, procrastination is the enemy. As John Wooden said, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail”. Without planning, we are setting our families up for trouble. They will be grieving and shouldn’t be forced to figure out online passwords, write an obituary, and plan a funeral with no guidance, etc.
Not planning is selfish. It burdens our families at the worst possible time, leaving them with the guilt of wondering if they did it the way we wanted. We prepare for many possibilities, but not for the one that is guaranteed to happen. We put more thought into our New Year’s resolutions than our deaths.
Let’s talk with our loved ones. Tell them what we want. What a gift that is for those we’ll leave behind! It also helps them be more financially aware and responsible. This talk doesn't have to be all doom and gloom. Talk about our lives and memories, explaining special pictures, sharing stories, and discussing things they might want to know but never asked. Talk about things that will comfort them. Tell them how we dealt with our losses. You’ll feel pretty good that you’ve taken care of this while dying or becoming mentally incapacitated is just an abstract concept. If you’re ill or in the process of dying, it will bring you some peace of mind.
As you know, my dad died at 57 after a long illness. He hadn’t discussed funeral plans, and we hadn’t pushed him. Unfortunately, we hadn’t made plans either, so when he finally passed, we scrambled to make arrangements. It was not any fun, and was particularly hard on my grieving mom. As a result, mom and I had a number of discussions about what she wanted when it was her turn to go. She wanted a plain wooden box. In fact, she said she preferred a cardboard box, like the one new refrigerators come in. I laughed, but told her it probably would have to be the wooden one. She wanted to be buried next to my dad in NJ, although she had moved here a few years after he died. There were a few other details we discussed, but not as many as we should have.
When she suddenly died at age 84, I was a mess. No matter how old you are, when your second parent dies, you’re an orphan. The unconditional love our parents give us is gone. I was in a daze and felt terribly alone. At the funeral home, they kept trying to sell me a beautiful, top-of-the-line mahogany coffin, gorgeously displayed in rose lighting. Remembering my discussion with mom, however, I insisted on the plain wooden box, which was leaning on its side against a wall in a dark corner, lid askew. They spoke of it disparagingly. I held firm. I was thankful that mom and I had talked.
Plan what you want to happen at your wake, funeral and/or memorial service, put it in writing, and let your family know your wishes. If you want a burial, contact a cemetery and purchase a plot now. Costs will only increase. If you want cremation, contact a funeral home and arrange it. Where do you want your ashes spread? Planning your own funeral can be difficult, so ask for help from friends, relatives, funeral celebrants or religious leaders. This lets you manage the costs, pick out your clothing, pick music to be played, who will speak, what readings and prayers to use, etc. Do you want flowers? Where should they be donated afterwards? Are you an organ donor? Spare your family these difficult decisions at a time when they will be in pain.
We have the option of prepaying funeral costs, with the money held by a third-party in a trust or a life insurance policy, so if the funeral home goes out of business we’re protected. Pre-need contracts are usually portable, some even refundable. We can pre-pay for the coffin, embalming, chapel, dressing/casketing, floral arrangements, staff and service fees, as well as cemetery expenses, like the gravesite, headstone, opening and closing, outer burial container, etc. Let your family know what services you’ve paid for, and what you haven’t, so they don’t later pay for things you’ve already arranged.
Prepaying also helps with Medicaid issues, since it shelters some of your money from eligibility consideration (“spend-down”), although there may not be a benefit in locking your money up decades before you know whether you’ll need Medicaid. Another way to cover future costs is to set money aside in an earmarked savings account, if you have the discipline to not touch it. It can be joint with a spouse or child, or name them as a beneficiary upon your death. (In that way the money could be used in an emergency, then replenished.)
Where are the keys to your house and car? The passwords to your online accounts? Once you decide what you want, keep all the relevant info in a master file. Tell your family where it is. Billions of dollars sit unclaimed with the State because families didn’t know about accounts. Keep your information current.
What goes in the master file? Your estate planning documents, legal papers and certificates, passwords, income info, financial asset list with account numbers/values, life insurance info(don’t forget about policies from former jobs), retirement asset info, membership lists, vehicle titles, real estate info, list of valuable tangible assets and location, social security number/card, passport, driver’s license info, military records, contact info for your health care professionals and pharmacy, medication list, hospital preference, Medicare/Medicaid info, social worker/case worker contact info, list of creditors and amounts, loans you’ve made to others, etc. (Some of this can be digital, just let others know how to access it.)
Go through your home and make a list of valuable things, like the house itself, tv’s, jewelry, collectibles, vehicles, computers, tools, etc. As we discussed last month, get rid of your clutter. List your non-tangible assets: investment accounts, 401k plans, IRAs, bank accounts, life and other insurance policies, such as long-term care, homeowners, auto, disability, health, etc.
As you know, accounts and policies with designated beneficiaries pass directly to them when you die, not going through your will or trust. Ask for a list of whom you’ve named for each account/policy you own. Review it and make sure it’s still what you want.
You may have several different retirement plans or IRAs from different jobs. Consider consolidating them for less paperwork and easier management. Maybe there’s a better investment option.
Consider life insurance, not just for covering your salary after you die, but helping your family pay for funeral costs, debts, etc. Groups you belong to may have low cost policies you can get.
Go over your investment/insurance plans periodically. Life changes and so do your needs. Do you need long-term care insurance? Disability coverage? Tax planning?
Carry emergency medical contact info with you. Run a free credit report once a year to review what’s there.
Once your advance planning is taken care of, enjoy your bucket list. Places to see, things to do? Sports, hobbies, activities to try? Family and friends to be with? Projects to start or finish? Causes to support? Personal history, books, articles to write? Regrets to be resolved? Spiritual meaning found? Things you’ve been afraid to do or say?
Laughing and being happy can be a part of coping with death. Death, like life, is complex. You can feel sad and be in pain, but still be a happy, positive person. You can feel grateful even when suffering.
We have an almost superstitious reluctance to speak about our death. But as Gail Rubin, the nationally known Death speaker (who will be our April luncheon guest), says “talking about sex doesn’t make you pregnant, and talking about dying won’t kill you”.
“Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now.”
“As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.”
“Death ends a life, not a relationship”.
“The ones that love us never really leave us.”