Instructions for the afterlife: Preparing for the inevitable

I hate to get all morbid on you, but if something happened to you today that temporarily or permanently (or immortally, depending on your religious persuasion) put you out of commission, would your family be able to locate all the necessary papers, people, and passwords necessary to continue or settle your affairs? Documenting this information is one of the 10 steps that I consider important to any estate plan.

What should be in this collection of sensitive material? Here are some ideas.

Where to Go for Help

Include the phone numbers and addresses of professionals you've worked with. This will help in sorting out your affairs, and give you the opportunity to recommend professionals whose services you think your family may need. This list could include:

  • Lawyer
  • Accountant
  • Financial advisor
  • Insurance agent
  • Real estate agent

Instructions and Legal Documents

Your family may have to make some big decisions in the event of your incapacitation or expiration. It will be much easier for them if they can locate your important legal documents, as well as any other instructions, including:

  • Will, living will, health-care directive, powers of attorney
  • Instructions for your final arrangements, as well as documentation of any pre-paid funeral arrangements
  • Your obituary (if you want to save them the trouble)
  • Trust documents
  • Marriage license
  • Past tax returns
  • Deeds to property
  • Vehicle registrations (car, boat, motorcycle, plane)
  • Permits for firearms or other regulated items

Financial Documentation

To make sure your assets go to the people you want (and don't become long-forgotten dormant accounts), provide the account numbers, access information, beneficiary information, and even copies of statements from these accounts:

  • Checking, savings, bonds
  • Credit cards
  • IRAs, 401(k)s, and other retirement accounts
  • Employer-provided benefits
  • Annuities
  • Disability insurance
  • Life insurance
  • Brokerage accounts
  • Mutual funds

Taking Care of the Goods

You'll likely leave behind lots of Stuff. That Stuff will be more valuable if your heirs know where to find:

  • Owner's manuals
  • Warranty information
  • Items you've loaned to others
  • Documentation substantiating authenticity or history

Passwords, Combinations, and Secret Stuff

In our security-minded world, we have come up with many ways to protect our assets and privacy. Unfortunately, this heightened security can prevent loved ones from accessing important information. Be sure to document:

  • Computer passwords
  • Account logins and passwords
  • Location of safe deposit boxes
  • The combination to the safe
  • Where to find all the keys
  • Any place you've hidden valuables

Recurring Bills and Payments

Increasingly, Americans use automatic bill paying and automatic transfers to cover monthly bills. Some of these should be kept in force after you pass; for example, the mortgage should still be paid. Other regular bills, on the other hand, should be canceled. Indicate any recurring bills that your family might now know about, such as:

  • Gym membership
  • Club fees and dues
  • Cable TV or satellite radio
  • Entertainment services
  • Magazine and newspaper subscriptions
  • Any other automatic transfers, such as to a favorite charity or investment account

Hide, Update, Repeat

Obviously, you don't want all this information on your coffee table or your Facebook page. Find a good hiding place, and let just a few trusted people know where it is. When my wife and I went to China to adopt our daughter, we put one copy of our list (and legal documents) under our bed and another in one of my desk drawers at The Motley Fool, and told two people where to find the copies in case anything happened to us. (I've since removed both copies, so don't bother rooting through my stuff!)

Also, this doesn't have to be an impersonal or boring document. One of the longtime subscribers at Rule Your Retirement has put all his important information in what he has called “A Letter From Your Dead Husband,” which he described thusly: “It is both an act of love for my wife and a personal statement to my dead father, who I loved very much. But Dad was a lawyer who never prepared for his own death at 63, and who created tremendous problems because of his lack of preparation. I hope not to make his mistakes.”

He begins the letter to his wife:

I want you to know that I've enjoyed every minute that I've been able to think about our future together as I've done this financial planning. But, if you're opening this letter something has happened. That makes the planning all the more important, and please know that you are well cared for.

He then describes where all everything can be found, and offers advice about what to do with their assets, who to ask for help (and who not to ask), and other nuggets, such as, “I hope that you find someone else and are happy. Having said that, I also suggest that you establish a pre-nuptial agreement to protect your funds.”

Finally, an observation from another Fool reader:

Review the list at least annually, with a final once-over when you figure the time is near. My mother's list was 20 years old. We tore the house apart looking for the favorite nightgown she wanted to be buried in until Dad finally told us she'd worn that out years ago. The two [surviving] requested pall bearers wouldn't fit down the aisle of the church with their walkers and the casket. Thank God for cousins.

So do your family a favor and leave behind a folder that contains all the important information. And do yourself a favor by sending this article and the other on estate planning to your relatives.

After all, the family that plans together…pays fewer lawyers.

J.D.'s note: Ohmygoodness. This article is so timely for me. In fact, I put off running my “I'm back!” article today just to run this. Kris has been asking me for months to create a Death List — a collection of the info she'd need if I were to kick the bucket. “I've been bugging you to do this for six months, and then you go off on a potentially fatal trip to Alaska,” she told me this evening. I'm bookmarking this article for the coming weeks.

Also, I should note that two Get Rich Slowly readers offer services to help collect this sort of information. Charlie Park from PearBudget has a free service called Emergency Binder. If you're looking for something a bit more robust, check out the affairs organizers from reader Mark Gavagan.

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George
George
10 years ago

Great ideas! We have arranged most of this with our attorney who keeps information for any unfortunate circumstance. He has our wishes and the authority to execute the necessary settlements should anything happen. This gives our kids the piece of mind to carry on without the burden of having to sort it all out.

If you don’t have an attorney on retainer for such circumstances, it is never to late or early to start asking around for a good referal.

Adam
Adam
10 years ago

Excellent advice. I’ve also been meaning to do this for at least 6 months, especially after seeing a couple other couples our age (late 20’s) lose a spouse.

Mike Piper
Mike Piper
10 years ago

I recently created an “in case of death” business plan.

If I were to die, and my wife were to do nothing relating to the business, money would continue to come in for at least a few years, but probably at a steadily declining rate as my sites’ and books’ information became outdated.

So I created a list of concrete steps to take to keep things up to date so that the revenue will last longer. (Mostly consisting of explaining what needs to be updated and how to find somebody to do that work.)

Dave H
Dave H
10 years ago

After my own experience, I enthusiastically endorse this idea! Dad was a huge gadget freak, and since he handled his and Mom’s finances he had switched to electronic statements and bill paying. When he died suddenly Mom had no idea how to turn on the computer, let alone find the web sites for their accounts. My brother stepped in to help, but still didn’t know where their accounts were. He did know Dad however, and knew that Dad would have had the information near at hand, with passwords. When the hospital returned the belongings that were in Dad’s pockets when… Read more »

Deb
Deb
10 years ago

My mother and I were talking about these very issues last night! We need to do this for our families and for eachother as well. So very important, yet so many of us have taken these steps!

Kevin M
Kevin M
10 years ago

“potentially fatal trip to Alaska,”

Did she actually say that to you? How funny/creepy.

I agree this article was terrific and goes beyond some of the normal planning stuff. I’m going to write my “letter” today.

getagrip
getagrip
10 years ago

Under your bed? You put a critical document with important personal information UNDER your bed? Have you ever watched “it takes a thief” on Discovery. In nearly every episode when the guy robs the house (with the owners previous okay) he checks under peoples beds and under the mattress. In one episode he said he’s always stunned how people think because their bedroom is private and personal no one will go there, so they “hide” their most important things there, so as a thief that’s one of the first places he goes. How about using a home safe, or lockbox,… Read more »

Katie
Katie
10 years ago

my parents did a series of classes at their church where lawyers, doctors, bankers, funeral home owners, etc. came in & talked about what to expect and how to prevent chaos when they die. During my last visit to see them, my mother pulled me aside and showed me where she had all the documents, told me how their burial plots are taken care of and all the funeral arrangements are paid in full. Being recently married, I’ve made it a point to give my husband my “if I die” list. He took my list and expanded it with all… Read more »

C
C
10 years ago

If you want to leave your passwords for loved ones, consider using a password manager such as Keepass, Lastpass, or something similar. This will enable you to only have one master password to access all your logins. If you change your passwords somewhat regularly (you should), this makes it a lot easier to have an up-to-date list of all your online passwords or even offline things like safe combinations, etc.

CERB
CERB
10 years ago

This is a timely post for our family. Two days ago my sister and I sat down with our Mom and went through the process of gathering information with her. She is the caregiver for our father who has Alzhiemers. She was recently sick for a couple of days and we didn’t even know what medications my Dad required. We compiled an “emergency” folder with info. about their doctors, medications, health insurance, health care directives, and durable power of attorney. During a health crisis we can grab that folder and go. Then my Mom took us through all of their… Read more »

Kent @ The Financial Philosopher
Kent @ The Financial Philosopher
10 years ago

JD: I know you like this quote: “We say that the hour of death cannot be forecast, but when we say this we imagine that hour as placed in an obscure and distant future. It never occurs to us that it has any connection with the day already begun or that death could arrive this same afternoon, this afternoon which is so certain and which has every hour filled in advance.” ~ Marcel Proust If one is to begin with the end in mind, the end is not the reaching of a financial goal, such as retirement, the end is… Read more »

Liz Titley
Liz Titley
10 years ago

If only everyone would heed this message. I’m a Will writer & the number of people who haven’t got a Will, and don’t want to think about writing one is mind-boggling. Once upon a time, when 90% of us didn’t own anything, it was understandable, but now, with so many people owning their own homes, they are still not prepared to make a Will, & will leave their loved ones in such a mess. I feel like I’m banging my head on a brick wall at times.

Jackie
Jackie
10 years ago

I just have to say that I love the title of this post. The content is key too: nothing inspired me to get this stuff done like going through my mom’s affairs after she died. She was super organized, and it was still difficult. I can’t imagine what a nightmare it would have been if she hadn’t prepared.

Julie in San Diego
Julie in San Diego
10 years ago

Thanks for the reminder.

I’m using The Big Book of Everything, by Erik A. Dewey, as GRS suggested on July 21, 2009. I work on it a little each week.

I like the excel format better than a word format, myself.

elisabeth
elisabeth
10 years ago

Yes, this is good advice. But I have to tell you, it got a little old when every visit to my father-in-law (for years!) included an obligatory, “here’s where I’ve put the important papers…” Much later, he moved into an assisted living situation near our home, and my husband took over all of his paperwork. I’m not saying this isn’t a good idea, but it can become something of an obsession… And I have to say that I’m a little uneasy with the idea of trying to control a lot of things after I die. I’ll be dead. It really… Read more »

Khaleef @ KNS Financial
Khaleef @ KNS Financial
10 years ago

Excellent article. This list is a must for everyone. It doesn’t matter what stage of life you are in, or how many dependents you have. Someone will have to pick up the pieces after you pass away!

erika
erika
10 years ago

@elisabeth – having recently gone through my grandfather’s estate settlement process, I can tell you that the planning is not for or about YOU, so much as it is for your survivors. The idea is not to control where your things go, but to express your wishes about the things you care about so that your family doesn’t end up guessing and/or fighting about what to do with them. My family is close-knit and rational, but the emotions and sentiments attached to personal belongings caused contention and drama that could have been prevented with a more specific will. As to… Read more »

elaine
elaine
10 years ago

I blog for the USC Emeriti Center http://colleaguesforlife.blogspot.com/ We recently put together a 2 page check list of things to do when a loved one dies. It can be found at the “resources” button on the Center website, http://www.usc.edu/org/emeriti_center/. My experience was that I was unable to think when my husband died. We thought a check list would mitigate similar situations. Please go ahead and pass it on, use it, whatever.

Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
10 years ago

I posted about estate planning today too since it’s so important. Hubby and I haven’t gotten the official paperwork done yet, but I have made an emergency info packet for him in case…it has all the account numbers, passwords, etc. I try to update it at least every 3 months.

finallygettingtoeven.com
finallygettingtoeven.com
10 years ago

We have what we call ‘the letter of direction’ It basically gives an individual step-by-step, in order detailed instructions on what to do in the event of our deaths, beginning with getting into the home and getting our pets taken care of first. It lists where all important documents are located and how to handle each individual one, starting with the most important and working your way down the list. We address everything from taking care of financial matters, to the selling of the home & belongings to dealing with our pets. I have even set up a trust-fund for… Read more »

Becky
Becky
10 years ago

@J.D. Roth, can I suggest an alternative and less morbid term than “Death List?” In the military, we make what we call “Turnover Binders” for the next person to do our job. I made a turnover binder for my significant other that included many of the things mentioned in the article. I’m sure it would be just as functional in the event of my death as it is if I just go out of town on business, but the name is a little less scary!

Jenn
Jenn
10 years ago

A friend of mine died out of the blue- just a totally freak thing- a couple weeks ago. It brought up the living will issue. I was shocked how many of my friends had never heard of it, much less didn’t have one. I would like to point out that you can do much of it yourself (http://www.uslegalforms.com/livingwills/washington-living-will-forms.htm for example) and have it checked and notarized. Better to have a holographic will than none at all. If you are looking at this list and saying “wow overwhelming!”…just start with the will and living will. Do the rest as you have… Read more »

AC
AC
10 years ago

I am meeting with a lawyer tomorrow to go over estate plans and asset protection. I don’t have a husband or kids yet, but nevertheless, you don’t want to waste the money you leave behind in probate.

deb
deb
10 years ago

I’m concerned about this, but I also wonder how much does it usually cost to have a will and whatever else is needed done by a lawyer?

What about DIY? Does the “Organize my Affairs” mentioned in the article offer a will that would pass legal requirements? (their site didn’t say much about it) What about other DIY options, like from Quicken?

We just don’t have the $$ available right now for a lawyer so we keep putting it off. I know we need to do it, and I worry about it, but really, first things first (mortgage, food, etc).

Sara
Sara
10 years ago

I’ve been wanting to do this (even though I’m 28 and don’t plan on dying in the near future), but I haven’t been able to figure out what to do with the information to ensure that nobody gets it before I die. I fear that someone could break into my home and get the information. There is really no one I trust enough not to be nosy and look for it if given the opportunity.

David/MoneyCrashers
David/MoneyCrashers
10 years ago

A living will is a great place to start. Doing all of this can be overwhelming. If you can at least do a living will, should something happen, it would at least give your loved ones something to go by.

Wanda
Wanda
10 years ago

My husband died suddenly several years ago & had quite a few stocks in his name only (we were married in 2001 & he was quite the procrastinator). It was a paperwork nightmare. Now, I have all stocks and bank accounts as POD or TAD naming my daughters. I would never want them to have to go through what I did at such a difficult time.

PB
PB
10 years ago

We made our first wills when we were expecting our first child. We had virtually no assets at the time (but no debt either), but were extremely concerned about some of the members of our family and wanted to make sure of the guardianship issue. That child is now almost 28. We have gone through a series of wills as the family grew and are now down to writing what I hope will be our last — much simpler, as all the kids are over 21. However, I really need to get all our information about finances in one place;… Read more »

quinsy
quinsy
10 years ago

Last time I read an article about this about 6 months back, I right away started making a list of things to do if I died, including all the accounts and passwords my husband would need. I pictured him trying to deal with my affairs after I died and I knew that he would be lost without this document. A week later, my laptop was stolen. Luckily, it seems to have been stolen by a meth addict who didn’t care too much to try to make my life miserable by using all the personal information on it, but my heart… Read more »

Swami of Life Insurance
Swami of Life Insurance
10 years ago

Great post! Heck, this is really good advice even if you don’t die. Remembering passwords and the location of important documents is sometimes a chore for the living, too.
🙂

Mike
Mike
10 years ago

I feel dirty… I just finished planning a funeral for my mother today. She is currently in hospice. It is worse than dealing with a used car salesman. We are fortunate to be able to do it ‘pre-need’ so were able to make rational decisions and negotiate (yes you can negotiate). It would be much much worse if it was after a death. They supply a book to record most of the information listed above so it will be available when needed. You can request one from most Dignity Funeral Homes, but be prepared to fend off the vultures. Funeral… Read more »

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