In case of death …

No one likes to think about his or her death. However, not thinking about it doesn’t mean it won’t one day happen. Not thinking about it also can put an undue burden on those you leave behind. I’ve recently witnessed firsthand the stress and anxiety thrust upon grieving friends and family members when no instructions or a Will exist.

One of the nicest things you can do for those you love is to have plans in place in case of your death.

If you’ve never taken the time to think about your death, please consider the following actions.

Your job:

  • Think about all of your job responsibilities and determine what you could do to help your boss and co-workers fulfill these responsibilities if you were to suddenly and unexpectedly leave your job. Then, do the things you know could help them. This might include creating a list of all you do, regular deadlines, important contact information, and names of vital files and passwords. Write a memo, put it in an “in case of” envelope, and give it to human resources to be placed in your personnel file. Be sure to tell your boss about the letter, and let her know you’re not planning on anything happening, you’re just being organized. Suggest your co-workers do the same, and review your document every six months to make sure it’s current.
  • If you own your business, meet with a lawyer and have a document drawn up that explicitly says what will happen to your company if you are no longer capable of running it. Identify if the company will be dissolved, sold, or passed on to heirs, as well as how debts and profits will be handled.

Your personal life:

  • Meet with a lawyer and have a Last Will and Testament created.
  • Write a letter detailing exactly what you want done with your body after you death, how you envision your funeral, and any other relevant information. Be specific about any religious traditions you might have, anything you want included in your obituary, and how you will cover the costs of all your wishes. Give a copy of the letter to the executor of your Will and another copy to your lawyer.
  • Review your life insurance policy and make sure it will cover all of your funeral expenses, and any additional insurance you might wish to carry. If you don’t have a life insurance policy, get one.
  • If you wish to be buried, buy a burial plot.
  • Write a letter detailing what you want done with your personal possessions after your death. If you want a niece to have your engagement ring, put it in this letter. Give a copy of the letter to your lawyer.
  • Similar to what was mentioned earlier in the Your Job section, think about all of your responsibilities in your home and personal life. Create a list of all you do, bills and accounts, names of vital files, passwords, contact information for your children’s school, etc. Put this information in an envelope, and put it in a home safe that is secured to the floor. Give a copy of the key and/or code to the executor of your Will to access only in an emergency.
  • Review these documents once a year (or more, if necessary), to ensure they match your current wishes and responsibilities.

Have you taken these steps? Have you planned even more than this? If we have forgotten something on this list, please add it to the comments.

62 Comments for “In case of death …”

  1. posted by Dorothy on

    Erin, it’s good to know that there’s one area where you’re as “cluttery” as most people. Or maybe you simply weren’t the one handling the arrangements for your aunt.

    A thousand bucks for an obit??? Maybe if my aunt were a Nobel Prize winner.

    This discussion has made it imperative for me to write down my wishes for my funeral. In my family we typically use cremation and have the ashes buried. However my mother-in-law would be handling my affairs if I die in the next few years, so it’s best to be clear. If you’re cremated, the cheapest casket (even cardboard) is what you need, and there’s no need for embalming. And as the widow of two veterans I’m eligible for burial in a National Cemetary which, in my view, is the dignified place to be — at no cost to my estate. So for me, the cost would be MAYBE $2000.

    If people want to come they’re on their own dime. I’d rather have them make a donation in my memory to one of my causes or one of their own. Our ministers won’t accept more than a couple hundred bucks, and flowers — well, send them now, please, so I can enjoy them.

    But if you or your family want a big production, for sure it’s best to make that clear and to have insurance to cover it if you can’t afford it. It’s a bit ironic, though, don’t you think, to plan for a funeral you can’t afford when you wouldn’t have bought, say, a house or car you can’t afford!

  2. posted by Maggie Rose on

    Another vote for “it’s never too early to plan”. We are 25 and planning to get married in about 2 years. If either of us was unable to work for an extended period or time or died unexpectedly, the other person would not be able to pay all of the bills, especially on top of potentially missing work and with additional medical/funeral expenses. We also do not want this burden (especially regular bills, etc) to fall on our parents. So we each have a life insurance policy. Not a ton, but enough to cover expenses and get the other person through the first few months of loss. My job also offers a life insurance policy which will go directly to my parents to also offset costs. We are working on personal wills, etc. Ideally we would also have a substantial emergency savings if something should happen unexpectedly, but we’re only now able to rebuild that after a lengthy unemployment (thanks, economy). So at least we can be at ease with some of the financial burden of losing a partner. Bonus, our insurance is very cheap, as we’re young and (knock on wood) healthy, and we have a great policy that cannot be revoked later in life if we’ve continued to pay. So it’s worth looking into in your twenties because it could save a lot of hassle in the future.

  3. posted by Karla on

    My dad passed away suddenly a few weeks ago. My stepmom is getting advice about his accounts–I think his level of preparation was well-intentioned but mixed. His obit was ~$300 and cremation, nice urn, services, coroner fees were ~$3K (included obit). That doesn’t include the private party we’ll throw at their home. So costs can vary quite a bit depending on the route you want to go (eg no church service in our case). I’m committed to laying out my wishes so I can have a way more eco-friendly (and economically friendly) arrangement than what they recommend when you walk in the door at the funeral home. I’m grateful he only kept things he cared about so there wasn’t piles of stuff to deal with along with our sadness.

  4. posted by Natalie in West Oz on

    What an interesting post. It has helped me make a hard decision. Last year, my husbands Gran died and left a ring containing 3 diamonds that was her mothers. Her instructions were that the diamonds were to be given to her two grandaughters in law and the only daughter of her only daughter. So I got this diamond and have sat looking at it for a year wondering what on earth to do with it since I have two sons and wouldnt want to choose between them who gets it. But I finally realised, if we’re thinking death, that I also have my own engagement ring that I wont be needing. So, problem solved – get the diamond put into a setting, and when I die, each son gets one ring. Of course that means I have to buy another 8 chip diamonds as my engagement ring has a central stone and 8 smaller ones…. No, I’m joking – the diamond I inherited is much bigger than my engagement one.

    As for obits, we dont do that here in Australia. People get a death notice, usually a few lines (eg: Smith, Mary, 1.1.11, aged 97. Passed away after a long illness, at peace now, we will miss you, Sally, Pete and your beautiful granchildren), and other people also lodge their condolences but thats all. Formal obits are read out at the funeral. The only obits you see in a paper are ones from very significant people and I’ve only ever seen a few of those too.

  5. posted by Teri on

    When my father died we donated his body to Then Anatomy Gifts Registry for medical research (he had several diseases). They took care of all costs. We chose not to have his ashes returned to us. Several months later we received a wonderful letter explaining how his body advance research in several areas. Instead of spending money on “what to do with the body” we had a party celebrating his life. We served hotdogs and cokes (his favs). We put together photos on tri-fold boards of Dad and his family, friends, business, and “silly” pictures. People wrote stories about Dad on cards that we later assembled for my mom. We were lucky to have a couple of “friends” sing and play favorite songs… a great time was had by all, it was meaningful, and not expensive at all.

  6. Avatar of

    posted by cjhaab on

    @April, I’ve been able to discuss these topics with olders by bringing up as general conversation or asking advice as if for my own concerns. What would you do if… What do you think about so-and-so doing thus… This is what happened to so-and-so, but how do you feel about cremation? singing hymns? or whatever details or preferences of theirs you wish to know.

    I think if you stay off the “how do you want your funeral arranged?” and “how much life insurance do you have?” and “write down all your account numbers and passwords.” it can open up the topic a little more gently.

  7. posted by Deb on

    Things you do around the house – not just financial things, but things like pool maintenance – have you written an instruction manual, so that a spouse or child can take them over for a period of time? Do they know which companies you use for water, gas, electricity, phone etc, so they know who to call if there’s an issue with something and you’re not conscious?

    Someone earlier mentioned the purchase of a funeral plot. Can I also suggest if you’re planning to be cremated, buy a location for that too? We’ve been looking recently, and they vary from $3k to over $8k. If you can buy that now, and ensure your family know it exists, it’ll save time and hassle later. It also gives you the opportunity to purchase a location next to your spouse (buy both now) as they do become unavailable. I’d suggest you also think about the wording on your plaque. They have limits on the amount of information you can fit on there, so have a discussion with your spouse, and a basic plan put together for that, so your family don’t have to make decisions in a time of grief.

    Do you have preferences on who does your eulogy? Check with them and then MENTION it to your family. You want to ensure that’s clear to everyone, so that Uncle Jerry doesn’t stand up and do 45 mins of waffle, if you have a best mate who’s a brilliant public speaker. Most services have strict time limits, and they charge a LOT if you exceed them.

    April, I second cjhaab’s suggestion about starting it with a discussion, but if that doesn’t work, there’s a website called where you can order an A4 book that you write in (I want the music to be ….). This walks you through a number of things that your relatives should know about what you want – do you want a funeral, or to be cremated, where do you want it, what sort of flowers etc. It doesn’t cover everything, but it’s pretty comprehensive. It’s all paper based, there are plans for an electronic version in the future. I think it’s about $35 AUD, and is a worthwhile investment. You could buy a copy for yourself, work through it, and then buy a copy for them and strongly recommend that they do the same. Hopefully in asking them to detail their wishes, so that you ensure they are respected, you can also determine whether they’re covered expenses-wise.

    Wills don’t have to be expensive – you can probably buy a basic will kit for around $20 at your local post office – but you DO need to have one, and to have it properly witnessed – otherwise the government get more than their share – that might be a way to convince your rellies to move forward with it?

    Keep in mind that funeral homes will often raise the question of music ownership. If you have expressed preferences for certain music, make sure you have a copy on CD, so you can show it to them, even if you end up burning four tracks onto a separate writeable one – usually the reason they raise the issue is that the burn CD’s are most likely to not work. If you’re able to test it in their system a couple of days before hand, that’s probably a good idea.

    A lot of funeral homes offer a free video (with audio) of the service after it’s done, but they make no guarantees of it. I’d suggest you set up a micro recorder on the lectern, and possibly your own video camera, and just let them run. That way, if there is an issue with the funeral home’s version, you still have something to show people who couldn’t make it to the service, or people who are hard of hearing.

    Mletta, love your comments, would suggest one more thing.
    If you have property or bank accounts which are only in the name of one spouse (I’m assuming here that the other spouse is the main beneficiary), then make sure you get them put in joined names.
    When dad died, the bank were quite happy to transfer all of the combined accounts to mum’s name, but any accounts which were just in his name were put into a holding account, and they’ll only release the money once they’ve been notified of probate. That can take months.
    They were given copies of the will which clearly states mum as executor and beneficiary, but that’s not enough for them.

    As a general thing, if someone – particularly someone elderly – is moving out of their current home into a nursing home, it’s probably a good opportunity to get ALL the members of the family in to help with ‘cleaning up’ or ‘clearing out’ the place. There are still tensions in my family because when grandad was too ill to live alone any more, he moved in with one of his sons. The other members visited him at home on the last day before the move (many live interstate) and as they were getting into the car at the last minute, the daughter-in-law with whom he was moving in said ‘did you want anything from the house, while you’re here?’. They were all very conscious of his feelings, and demurred. He died not long after, and a lot of family memories were just thrown out “Well you said you didn’t want anything!”.

    I’d suggest that if you’re in that situation of clearing out a house, particularly if you’re an executor, ensure you’re aware of anything which has already been allocated, or promised to someone and set those things aside. Then set up a working bee. Ensure that everyone has enough notice to come, that way if there’s anything in the memories that someone wants, they have the opportunity to speak up before it goes to the dump.

    One final thing – if you’re nominating an executor, make sure that person knows what you want. If you’ve seen a lawyer, then the lawyer will say ‘You don’t need to know what they want, you just tell us what to do, and we’ll take care of it all’. Sure they will, and charge like wounded bulls. Apart from probate, the executor can organise just about everything, but they need to know what is in the will, and what you wanted. Make sure they’ve seen the will before hand, and have an opportunity to ask clarifying questions (preferably with the lawyer who drew up the will around, to make sure the will says what you think it does) “So if this and that happens, then you want y?”

    Ideally have a second layer of executors (often your spouse is the primary one) so that if you and your primary both die in the same bus accident, you’re still covered.

    The power of attorneys mentioned by someone already should be set up in a similar way, so that if person x is unable to perform the duties, persons y and z will take them on.

  8. posted by MessyMom on

    I would like to suggest that everyone prepare a list of businesses they commonly use in case a service is outstanding at the time of death. Several years ago my husband’s brother passed away in a car accident at the age of 20. My husband and mother-in-law wanted him to be buried in a specific suit. We could not find the suit in his apartment and realized he must have taken it to the cleaners. We basically went through the yellow pages calling every dry cleaner in the city until we luckily reached the right one.

  9. posted by April on

    Thank you for the advice. I’ll be sure to look at that book.

    Sad though, that the book is written for Baby Boomers to deal with their parents, since my parents and in-laws are the Baby Boomers. It’s getting to be that time where all these kinds of books need to be updated for the next generation.

  10. posted by Elaine on

    One related tip I recently heard is to make sure each partner has a credit card in their own name. I have a few friends who only use their spouse’s credit card, and should the spouse suddenly pass away they will be on their own with no credit history. If they should need a loan, to qualify for a mortgage, lower their insurance rates, etc. they will be seen as a poor risk. Build a good score now by getting a card, using it for a few small transactions every few months and paying them off immediately. One friend of mine did this by getting her own card, setting up the monthly payments for her gym membership on it (which she pays off online), and then putting the card in her safety deposit box so she’s not tempted to use it for anything else.

  11. posted by Rachel on

    Wow, this is an amazing incentive for getting decluttered and organized ONCE AND FOR ALL. We actual or recovering hoarders, pack rats, messies, distracted folks, and plain old slobs need to quit hiding behind or underneath our clutter. It’s not fair for any of us to leave a legacy of stress and worry–plus a great big mess for other people to clean up! (Okay, there will be some people who cannot manage their lives…but most of us are capable of organizing our affairs.) Once upon a time, life wasn’t so complicated and maybe people didn’t know what had to be done when somebody dies…but now that we all know, it’s time to take action. Thank you for bringing up this topic. It’s not “fun” but it sure is important, and once it’s done the peace of mind will be wonderful, even if we have to review or update some details once or twice a year.

  12. posted by Dan Blakely on

    This is a great post to help get things in order. However, I also think that it is an opportune time for people to reflect on their lives and make sure that they are spending the balance of their time on this Earth doing those things they love, spending time with friends and family and nurturing memories that will take them to their final days.

    Why not take this as an opportunity to truly be present for these simple moments while you are still here – give them memories rather than directions for your “stuff” you accumulated while living.

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