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 Marjory on

    Bequests to charities
    Family heirlooms and history

    I also suggest having a small sum of money to keep some things operating for a month or two, such as paying the rent and utilities. A neighbor did this, and it meant the lights and ac stayed on while the family disposed of her furniture and collections. This process took weeks, and the temperatures were over 100 every day.

    I gave my grandmother’s bible to her home church. It had all sorts of family and church information from previous bibles. Since her father had started the church, and she was a charter member, it meant much, much more to the church than to me. The local history club have copied that information for storage at the local library and their own files.

  2. posted by Julia on

    This is actually a brilliant idea. My Grandmother recently passed away and had everything planned for her passing. Ironically a fire in her condo a few years ago wiped out the need for dealing with items left behind. She was able to organize everything she wanted, down to the music at the service! (great choices Gma!)


  3. posted by the other Tammy on

    Dave Ramsey calls it the love drawer or the legacy drawer–one central place where your family could go and easily find specific instructions about your finances, your medical needs, anything important. Taking the time to do this is such a gift to your family. They should be grieving, not having to search the house top to toe for your safe deposit box key.

  4. posted by Alan S on


    Details of any and all online accounts: URLs, Ids and Passwords.
    Details of any logon credentials required for PCs or other devices.
    Details of how you want each of the above to be handled.

  5. posted by Mirinda on

    Ugh! I could barely read this one. Obviously a week spot for me. I think I will set a time to sit down with my husband and at least talk about all of this. I need baby steps! Spread out over a long time!

  6. posted by nj progressive on

    As someone deadling with parental health issues, don’t forget to prepare an Advanced Directive, about what care you want (and don’t want) before you die. Talk to your spouse or significant other about what you want. Tell your children what you want.

    Several years back, we used one of Jane Bryant Quinn’s books to organize our household financial records (how many years do you need to keep certain records), shredded everything we didn’t need, and compiled a list of all of our financial information (deeds, titles, account statements, tax returns, investment records), with account numbers, access information such as passwords, and sent a copy of this document to each of our sisters. We’ll be updating the list later this year. And we’ve been pretty conscientious about destroying unneeded records at tax time in April, having a little shredding party.

    Now we’re meeting with the lawyer to have wills and advanced directives prepared, and purchasing life insurance to prepay funeral expenses. We don’t have kids, so this hasn’t been urgent. But after several years of dealing with aging parents, we’ve decided we shouldn’t put it off any longer.

  7. posted by nj progressive on

    Let me second the advice about making decisions about donations to historical organizations. Do you have family scrapbooks? Photographs of the community? Did your family own a local business? Was someone involved in civic organizations? The items that you have in your attic, basement, and closets may help to document your community. All of this will help future researchers and historians.

    Contact local organizations to send a curator or archivist to meet with you about potential donations of objects and documents. Then, please, please give them without restrictions, and make as big a cash donation to the organization as you can afford, to help the organizations that will preserve those materials.

  8. posted by Meg on

    A list of who should be informed and any necessary details about reaching them. Clubs and groups my father had belonged to wanted the news, but we ended up calling much of his rolodex unnecessarily. If we knew the best contact points for each and also which people were hard of hearing/very forgetful it would have lessened those phone calls.

    Guardianship of children. This should be in the will, but talk about it with the guardians before.

    The list for work, do the same for any volunteer work if you have a major role.

    If this is hard to do, think of some of these as “I just won a trip around the world list but must leave tomorrow list”. When I was suddenly scheduled for surgery, I was glad typing up pesky details was one thing I didn’t have to do for work.

  9. posted by Kayla on

    How early is too early to start this process. I am in my early 20’s and don’t own much as I am just starting out. In the least I would want my family to know my medical wishes and have them informed about my financial responsibilities if something were to happen to me.

    Any advice? Am I too young to be thinking about this?

  10. posted by Erin on

    I think about this a lot. It helps me declutter. “Why am I saving this? I never use it/look at it. When I die, it just means someone else has to deal with it.”

  11. posted by *pol on

    I have the will, I have the “central binder” that holds all account information… the rest I do not have yet.

    Over the years I have helped deal with the aftermath of the death of more than one family member … and I have to say pre-paying for the funeral arrangements is one of the KINDEST things you can do for your bereaved loved ones. My Gran had it all sorted out and prepaid ahead of time, though the sorting of the possessions was still emotionally difficult, we found that she had actually labelled with little stickers on the underside of objects what she wanted done with them (talk about organized!), and she had prepaid for the plot and service years before. Thanks to her forethought there couldn’t be any arguments about how anything was handled, all that the now orphaned daughter/executor had to do was make sure they did what she requested. It saved alot of family strife that I have seen in other estate settlements… and there were no questions about whether she would have approved of the service.

  12. posted by Julie on

    I volunteer with hospice and recommend an advance directive and power of attorney be on the top of that list.

  13. posted by Carol on

    My father left us instructions and a will, and even the prenup he and and his second (EVIL!) wife did … but none of it means much when the EVIL new wife wants to make legal challenges. It hurts to know how much of my Dad and Mom’s money we spent on the lawyer.

  14. posted by Linda on

    The first bullet point of “Your Job” should really be handled by your supervisor or the HR department. I think it’s a bit odd for an employee to circumvent their manager regarding their job responsibilities.

    However, I do think managers need to think more about worst case scenarios. I like to use the term “in case I get hit by a bus, you need to know how to….”

    Also, HR departments should annually update all contact information with their employees. I once worked at a company where an employee at another division died in a car accident while on a business trip over a weekend. Althought the family was notified immediately, the company did not have accurate contact information for team members, which meant that Monday morning the group was greeted by HR with some awful news about a co-worker.

  15. posted by timgray on

    I have a red envelope that I Update monthly that has all the websites, usernames, and passwords to all accounts I have. This allows my spouse to continue access to all our banking and other items until matters are settled. She also has access to ALL other things like social media accounts so that she can either close the account or post that I am deceased, etc…

    It’s very important that all the keys to everything you have online be written down and updated regularly for your loved ones to get access to when it is needed.

  16. posted by Dorothy on

    In general good advice, Erin, but the “buy life insurance” suggestion is WAY too sweeping. If you have enough assets to need a will, you probably have enough money for a simple burial/cremation.

    In my never-humble opinion, the ONLY people who should buy life insurance are those with A) dependents for whom they need to provide and B) insufficient other assets to provide for those dependents. In general, if you have minor children and/or a dependent spouse, and insufficient net-worth to support them if you die, then get life insurance. If you have no such obligations, you don’t need life insurance.

    And (tangential rant here) there is no reason whatever to buy insurance on a child’s life, unless that child is supporting someone. Insurance on children’s lives is a scam.

  17. posted by Karen (Scotland) on

    It is responsible and caring to leave plans for after your death.

    My Gran died last month but her affairs were fairly simple (local council rented house, enough money for the funeral, no valuable heirlooms). She had recently been decluttering becasue she hoped to move to a smaller, one level home. As part of this, she’d already been telling us who would get which pieces of furniture that she would no longer need. S
    he was 81 and in good health and sound mind until her death so, although very sad, we didn’t feel “traumatised” whilst dealing with her house and all the paperwork involved in being executors.

    However, it brought home to me how complicated our own affairs would be – 3 properties, 4 small children, many online accounts including banking and utilities. I thought I was organised (we have a will) but I see now that there is a HUGE need for a single folder or envelope containing all the essential info that only I know (even my husband doesn’t know half the stuff I know – not in an ominous way – just that I deal with it all.)

    Hmm, plenty to think about here.
    Karen (Scotland)

  18. posted by Anne on

    To Kayla: No, it is not to early. At the very least you should have an advance directive for health care – what you want to happen should you be unable to make medical decisions. It will help your family immensely should something happen.

    We set up a trust that takes effect when one of us dies. When we recently purchased our first house, we put that into the trust too. That avoids having things go into probate – a time consuming thing, even if the estate is small.

    As others have said, definitely have a list of passwords (or hints to them) somewhere. I had to guess when my father died.

    If you have elderly parents, see if you can be added to their bank account. My mom did this after my father died, and it really was a blessing when she passed. I was able to keep paying her bills while she was in care, too.

    You might also want to do a check of your parents’ papers – know where they are and who to contact. (Do they have insurance to pay if you need to put them into care?)

  19. posted by Sandra J on

    The FIRST thing one needs to do is to create a living will or advanced care directive. That should be legally drafted and copies given to family members or close friends and obviously those named as representatives in the document.
    Any instructions or wishes regarding what is to be done with your body (organ/tissue donations, etc) should be clearly discussed with family/close friends long before the need arises as they are the ones who will ultimately decide what is done regardless of what documents are left with a lawyer. Those instructions should be written out and copies given to family and close friends.
    These are the first steps that will have to be decided on in case of an accident or death and there’s no time to be wasted!

  20. posted by Living the Balanced Life on

    Having almost had to deal with this, I can tell you even though it is difficult, it is necessary. My husband suffered a brain aneurysm over 2 years ago. Things turned out fine eventually, but as they are wheeling him to the ambulance, he is whispering the safe password code to me. He nor I knew at that minute if I would see him again alive.
    Make the preparations. We have since talked about a lot of different things such as what to do with our bodies, etc. Having been close and surviving has seemed to make it easier to discuss.

  21. posted by Ella on

    Obituary ~ Give some thought to easing the task of the grieving person(s) who will write your obituary. Prepare a draft of basic information with correct dates and spellings of names, schools, organizatons, awards, etc. Be guided by the obituaries you’ve read of people you’ve loved or admired, and what you appreciated reading about, or contrarily, what you wish had been included.

  22. posted by Rebecca on

    A small amt of life insurance for kids isn’t really a bad idea. I know if one of our three kids passed away, my husb wouldn’t be emotionally able to go right back to work. Not to mention funeral costs plus any medical bills that may have accrued. A loss of a child can be just as devastating as the loss of a spouse or parent. Do my kids need as much as my husband in insurance? No. But a small rider on our policy gives us coverage for our kids in case the unthinkable happens.

  23. posted by mikala on

    I LOVE Ella’s idea about the obituary. It took a long time to come up with one for my dad, not knowing a lot of details about his early years.

  24. posted by Mletta on

    I did this about three years ago. It set off a flurry among friends and family who thought I might be ill! I carefully explained that I was single, lived alone and over 50 and that because my only living family member ( a brother) had no idea about my life and was not able to do anything, that I had to make it easy for the three friends I chose to help carry on with the details.

    Here’s what inspired me: Having to deal with the fallout when family members (parents) refused to deal with anything even when diagnosed with terminal illness and spending last six months in hospice.

    The ill will caused by all of this is NOT something i want to have my friends to feel towards me. It will still be a lot of work to empty my apartment, and deal with the paperwork, but I won’t complicate it by not leaving them with information they need.

    The one thing I would say here is that you shouldn’t think only in terms of “death.” This is not always the worst-case scenario. One could be in a situation where you are severely disabled, in a coma, or otherwise unable to act or function independently or to make decisions.

    You’re still alive, but if you haven’t planned in advance, your whole life could be literally out of your hands. Something most of us would not really wish for.

    If you have trouble dealing with the planning, think long and hard about your family and friends. If you really love them, and want to lessen their pain in your absence, you WILL do whatever you have to do to make it easier for them by doing the basics.

    Most important, write letters and talk to people and document your wishes in all areas. Even then, given the nature of our litigious society, there could be issues, but you will know that you have done what you can.

    Just the image of my friends and loved ones having to scramble around trying to do what’s needed if I am incapacitated or dead was enough to get me moving on this.

    Let me say there is an incredible sense of relief in doing it. Of course, one is very dependent on those folks you designate as your health care advocate, etc. So pick carefully and wisely and divide up the responsibilities.

    One last thing: DOn’t base your choices on who you like and trust alone. Pick people who can do the job. When/if I can’t speak for myself in a hospital, I don’t want the “nicest” person as my advocate. I want the person who can be polite, but firm and dogged and who will not stop till they get what I need.

    And if you are a member of a family with lots of issues, you’ll probably do better to pick people OUTSIDE the family to implement your wishes.

    Believe me, there are times when family is not your best source of help. And not just for the obvious reasons.

    Finally, anyone with children under 18 who has not done all this including making provisions for their children’s care: What are you waiting for? Seriously. Don’t think your family will get them if something happens to you. It does not work that way.

  25. posted by Mletta on

    An addendum.

    When choosing friends to help, I thought about what was needed (financial savvy, health savvy and computer savvy)and asked folks who had those various skills to take charge of those areas if needed.

    Most of our lives are online or on computers but not all of our friends are good with computers or can figure out how we use and access ours, even with passwords.

    As someone said, keep your passwords in a place they can be accessed.

    And tell people where stuff is in your house so they can find it. If something is on a flash drive or other media storage, but someone can’t find it, well it means nothing.

    Also, always ask if people are OK with helping you. Never assume.

  26. posted by Jen on

    @Dorothy – I completely agree. The only reason one should have life insurance is to provide for anyone who is dependent on you in the event of your death. If you have a spouse who works (and could support him/herself without you if need be) and have no children college-age or younger, then you probably don’t need life insurance. I can see the point that if you lost a child you and your spouse would probably not be emotionally able to go to work for some amount of time, but I feel that you’re better off having 3-6 months’ living expenses in savings to account for an unexpected event like that. But to each his own, and some people might be more comfortable having some insurance on their children, which would probably be very inexpensive as a rider on your own term life policy.

  27. posted by NothingButTheRain on

    LOL, as someone with “the cancer gene”, I do think about this, but if I wrote a letter like that for work my boss would freak.

    Better, just keep your records organized, and if you are a programmer, document the business rules for each application and for god’s sake use a framework.

  28. posted by David Atman on

    This is actually quite useful! Sorta opened my eyes to something I would have not otherwise thought about. There’s nothing quite as awful as leaving family with decisions to make in times like these. I’ll work on that peace of mind. Thanks!

  29. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Dorothy and @Jen — Ambulance expenses, hospital bills, body transportation to mortuary, body preparation, cremation/burial, funeral home rental, limo rental for immediate family, burial/mausoleum plot, obituaries in the local paper, flower spray for coffin/urn during wake/visitation/funeral, program printing, gratuities to ministers, funeral directors, pianist, and vocalist, meal after the funeral for family and friends, etc., all cost money. Unless you pre-pay for all of these items, your family and friends are going to be out about $25,000. The reason most people have life insurance isn’t to make their heirs wealthy, it’s to pay for all of these costs (or, as is most often the case, reimburse the person who paid all these bills).

    My aunt passed away a week and a half ago and her obituary cost $930. This wasn’t an obituary in the New York Times, it was my small, hometown paper (circulation of about 15,000 people). Close to a thousand dollars just to have an obituary printed in the paper.

  30. posted by Kim on

    This entry was tough to read. My husband died on Christmas day at the age of 44. He had been battling what seemed like a cold for months, but turned out to be a rare pneumonia. After 6 weeks in ICU he passed away. No one ever thought he wouldn’t pull through, most of all our 9yo and myself.

    Fortunately I am the one who handled all the finances so I was able to take care of necessary business. However since he was on a ventilator (and we didn’t think he’d pass away) there were many things I was unable to ask him.

    During this time I kept thinking to myself- if it had been me who had ill, my husband would have no idea how to pay bills or even what bills to pay since I do it all electronically. That was very scary. Now I’ve printed out passwords but I know that I need to get my house in order since it’s just me and our son now. It’s not something someone younger thinks needs to be done, and I’m not looking forward to doing it- but it is absolutely necessary- well, except as other have said- the job stuff- let HR deal with that.

  31. posted by Mletta on


    Thanks for pointing out that one of the reasons people have life insurance is to cover the costs of death and related expenses.

    I’m single, have no dependents, but I have modest life insurance specifically for that purpose so that neither family nor friends are stuck with the costs.

    FYI: You would be surprised how many families, with dependents, have NO insurance and even today, how many families are financially ruined because a spouse did not plan for their possible death or disability.

    This I truly do not understand. And this is often by people who make a lot and have a lot. Somehow they seem to think they are exempt or protected.

    Again, focusing on making life easier for those you “leave” is the incentive to overcome your own fear of dealing with death–and do the work.

    All it takes is going thru it just once with someone you know and you will want to get your acts together on this.

  32. posted by Mletta on

    RE: Obituary costs

    Erin, again thanks for pointing this out.

    We chose not to run obituaries in various papers for a relative when she died due to the costs (it would have been five papers based on where she lived over the years, a total of over $5,000. Better to give the money to her family.)

    ALso, another cost people don’t always anticipate: The cost of a funeral mass (although it’s called a “donation”) it was close to $500 in several places.

    That’s a lot of money for some people and a lot of money period. I was basically appalled and given that this relative had no folks who would be attending, we had several memorial masses said. (If you need a $500 mass to get blessings for a dead parishioner, something is wrong with that religion. And I can say it, cause I was “raised” in it till I made a different choice as an adult.)

  33. posted by danielle on

    All of this is so true. My 90-year-old grandmother passed away in December, and she had everything planned out to the smallest detail. It was such a blessing that in the last days of her life she was able to just “be” with her family, instead of fretting over these things.

    On the other hand, my best friend’s 30-year-old daughter passed away very unexpectedly two weeks ago, without any life insurance or provisions for her 6-year-old daughter. The family has had to figure out how to pay for her cremation and memorial service, and they are now having to arrange custody with the child’s father (that the child barely knows) because he legally has rights. While it may not have been possible to avoid all of the custody issues, so many of the other details could have been settled if she had taken a little time to make the arrangements. It was certainly a situation where no one expected anything bad to happen…and that’s exactly why we should all be prepared.

  34. posted by Gayle on

    I have a list of items in my jewelery box which are valuable because they cost a lot and/or could be sold and monetarily worth the time & effort to do so.

    I also have a list of family jewelery which has been handed down, where someone in the future might ask, “whatever happened to great grandma’s _____?”

    I have instructions the rest can be tossed or do as necessary.

  35. posted by DairyStateMom on

    Second the motion that it’s never, ever too early to think these things through. You might change your mind over time about some of it, so looking at your instructions periodically is helpful, but start early. It can be really hard to think about “when I’m not here” or “what if I can’t speak for myself?” but the payoff is peace of mind for you and your loved ones.

    It’s also important to make sure that your designees for medical power of attorney, whoever they are, are willing to follow through on your instructions. So talk that part through with your spouse/close friend/younger relative/sibling — it can be a really big challenge.

  36. posted by Jeanne B. on

    my parents died four months apart in 2006 after long illnesses. While Dad was fairly well-prepared from a financial and legal standpoint, they were casual about the Stuff. A few of the larger, financially valuable items were specifically bequeathed.

    The rest? Not bequeathed, and nobody else seemed to want them. I inherited their house, fully furnished, along with all of the Stuff and no idea what Mother and Dad would have wanted me to do with it.

    Some of these might be valuable for reasons other than money. There are unmarked photos of family members. Nobody knows who they are; that history is lost.

    If there is a way to archive the history of all of the items you own, do so. If there is a funny or important story behind the acquisition, write it down. This goes for bequeathed and otherwise, so you know why Grandma’s teapot is important, which Grandma it belonged to, and the history behind it. And please–write down who the people are in the photos and how they’re related.

    As for the rest, I wish my Mother had told us it was OK to get rid of some of this Stuff, because I feel overburdened by the responsibility of making that decision in her stead.

  37. posted by Barb on

    My parents live 1,000 miles away from all four of us children (they moved, not us). I’m named as our parents’ representative on their wills. During a visit two years ago, my mom showed me the file in their desk that has my name on it. It contains all their account numbers, passwords, accountant’s name, etc. Then we went to the bank where I was added as a signatory on their safe deposit box so I can access it to remove any CDs or other documents they have stored there. Much easier than trying to gain access to it when the time comes.

  38. posted by Cindi on

    If you have pets, it would be helpful to identify who they can “adopt” as their new family. In addition, pertinent information about the pets – vets, pet insurance etc. And in the unfortunate case where there is no one to take them, perhaps outline preferences about how to find them a new home.

  39. posted by Kara on

    To those who say “I don’t want to think about this” .. my anger is a very harsh GROW UP. Everyone dies and your not wanting to think about it puts a huge enormous burden on your family and friends.

    The costs of death and burial in the US are high. Having to figure out what to do with belongings, homes, personal items .. having to FIND bank accounts, property, and legal papers when someone you love dies is overwhelming, painful, and sometimes impossible.

    When you ignore your own mortality out of fear of death, you condemn your loved ones to even more pain, anguish, and suffering than they should have to deal with.

    I’ve gone thru it twice with parents who didn’t want to admit they were mortal. I’ve already put paperwork in place ot make sure my family knows what I want if I’m incapacitated or if I die. Anything less is selfish and cruel to your loved ones.

  40. posted by Another Deb on

    To those above who have lost loved ones recently, my sincere sympathy.

    Thought #1) I second the motion for life insurance if you have not prepaid for all funeral and burial expenses. The mortuaries will not begin preparations for the funeral until they know how they are going to get their money. Even if you have plenty of money, the estate may take years to settle. Who is going to foot the bill while waiting?

    Thought #2) We lost a relative in an accident last summer and his affairs were in superb order. Military life does that to you. The glitch we ran into was that no one has an original copy of the will. Without that, the witnesses had to be tracked down, which has hung up the process of dispersing the estate.

    #3) Stay clutter-free! In the emotional aftermath of a death, people sometimes focus on the possessions of the person as the only connection they have with them. If the item in your garage is crap to you, think of someone agonizing over how best to honor your wishes about it if they don’t know that. Notes of the true valuables, such as, oh, Faberge eggs, can help someone sort out the rest of the “people-think-I-collect-eggs-and-now-I-have-a-lot of-paper-mache-eggs-I-hate” dross.

  41. posted by Jacky on

    Your job, why would you list that first?

  42. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Jacky — Because “J” (Job) comes before “P” (Personal) in the alphabet.

  43. posted by April on

    Erin, could we have a post about how to approach your parents or grandparents with this stuff? I’m afraid they’d react poorly.

    My in-laws especially worry me… I’m convinced they’re hoarders (I’m certain my FIL is) and also very poor. They can’t afford to hire a lawyer for this stuff, I doubt they have insurance (can’t afford the monthly payments), and I know they’ve mentioned once long ago that they haven’t updated their will since they made it (when my husband was a small child). But who knows where that will even is? And what about gaining access to their financial records and the like? My FIL has a mini-van stuffed full with papers of all kinds (there’s only room for the driver and the front-seat passenger). It might be in there, but then again, it might not be. Their house is full of stuff (and papers), too.

    I know from my husband’s grandmother’s death that my husband’s extended family goes nuts by fighting about everything when someone dies. If something happens to my in-laws, it’ll be a mess for sure. I tried bringing all this up the last time I saw them (a year ago), and my MIL mentioned she’d probably have me be the power of attorney since I was outside of it all, but would still respect their wishes… but then changed the subject. I don’t know if she’s even expressed that thought to anyone else, let alone her husband.

    I’d like to say, “I’ll pay a lawyer to sit and work this all out with you,” but we’re on a tight budget ourselves (and a baby on the way). I’d also like to sit down with them and at least figure out where they keep their important paperwork and whatnot, but we live in a different country than they do.

  44. posted by Netleigh on

    Power of Attorney, that’s in the UK not sure what it is in the USA, is an essential adjunct to the will.
    I’ve recently had to deal with ill elderly relatives and it was awful for the one who had not set up a power of attorney, 2 years after he was incapable of making his own decisions we had still not sold his house.

  45. posted by Nurchamiel on

    @ Kayla: I think the same. I’m 20 now and I want to set up my own system of “in case of” I think I will do the same listed as above, and leave out everything I don’t own (yet) and update it every six months.

    @Doroty: I agree. Life insurances are not necessary for people who are finacialy healthy. I live in the Netherlands and I hope that the costs, when I die, are not that expensive. There are making money off grieving people by, for example, charging 10 EUR for a 0,50 EUR slice of cake (which is very common here, the slice of cake, that is). I like to sit down with my parents (as in, I haven’t already made a will, a last wishes letter etc. and for my life insurance).

    This is a very good article about what needs to be happened before you die. I am going to follow it through.

  46. posted by Katy Macadamia on

    @April – regarding how one might approach a parent or parent-in-law about these important but very tender matters, I recommend a very thoughtfully written book by Julie Hall “The Boomer Burden: Dealing with Your Parents’ Lifetime Accumulation of Stuff” – it’s available for Kindle or as a regular book – and includes ideas on how to open the lines of communication and become prepared. It is great that your MIL has already intimated that you may be the person in your family to take a lead on this.

    I read Julie Hall’s book quite recently wanting to inform myself on how to attend to these matters in the best possible way myself, and as I read it I marvelled at the way my own mother, who I’m sad to say died two months ago, had planned all the important things for us including the readings and hymns at her service. I cherish the way that she showed love to us in this way as she faced death, just as I cherish the memories of her love to us throughout our lives.

  47. posted by Erin Doland on

    @April — I agree wholeheartedly with Katy Macadamia. Julie Hall’s book “The Boomer Burden” is amazing.

  48. posted by Pammyfay on

    I want to “second” Cindi’s posting about pets. You want to make sure that there’s somebody willing and able and loving to welcome your pet into his or her home so it’s not as traumatic for your furbaby (or lizard baby or whatever!).

    I actually included this in my will — I know there are at least 2 people who would WANT to take my pet, but I want to make the decision. I also know someone (a friend who put me down as “next home” for one of her dogs) who in the will set aside an amount of money for her pets’ next families, because it can be a bit of a surprise when that first vet appt is costly because of booster shots and the like. It’d be good to have your care-and-feeding info available, too: Which vet has her records, what she gets fed, what commands she knows, etc. Many times, if you have a petsitter, you have all this info compiled anyway.

    Also concerning the will, that would be the place to note who would get the most important possessions you have. You can craft a letter (to be tucked into a copy of the will you might keep in your home) for other stuff, but the will holds a bit more power in case there’s a dispute. Of course, whoever gets into your house first, well, there’s no telling how this will play out. Just telling somebody you want her to have your great-grandmother’s wedding bands or vintage Tiffany jewelry isn’t good enough, though.

    In a letter, I’ve written to my “heirs” (lol!) to take what they like (beyond the items I’ve specifically bequeathed to certain people) that would either remind them of me or make their future homes more comfortable and beautiful and then to either sell or donate the rest, whatever gets the job done quickly. I don’t want them to think “She would be SO mad if we just put this art print she loved up on Craigslist!”

    One last idea: If you have a safe-deposit box, your executor should probably be on the registration for it, too, to make it easier to access.

  49. posted by Cher on

    I just wanted to add that I’m going through this with my in-laws, who, although in their 70s, are pretending that this will never happen to them. But realistically, they are never going to change, so my husband and I are just trying to come to term with the fact that they are inevitably going to leave us with a mess to clean up. It is frightening and upsetting to think about, but having asked them point blank for 5 years to give us some direction, we’ve been told to back off. I think we will have to bring in a service to get rid of their collections.
    In contrast, my parents have set up everything in advance and given us explicit permission to get rid of any photo albums which are not meaningful to us. (They have LOTS.) My father has also given my brother (who lives close by) official permission to let him know if he thinks he shouldn’t be driving any longer.
    The contrast between the sets of parents is dramatic.

  50. posted by Ella on

    Re obituary costs: I think it widely varies from paper to paper, many at no charge. I also believe that as time passes, the cost will become insignificant in relation to the importance of having published that remembrance.

    For my mother, I wrote three obituaries for very different readers: a lengthy obit with photo for the small town where she died (no charge); a medium-length obit for her hometown paper, emphasizing her family and upbringing there (no charge); and a very short obit in the Times of Los Angeles, where she had been a shopowner (3 lines at a per-line cost of… I don’t remember).

    For my best friend (a gifted artist who died from AIDS), I wrote a short obit for the SF Chronicle (can’t remember what the cost would have been). I submitted it to the obit editor, who then phoned and interviewed me, and subsequently he published a long and very touching obituary (no charge).

  51. 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!

  52. 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.

  53. 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.

  54. 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.

  55. 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.

  56. 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.

  57. 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.

  58. 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.

  59. 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.

  60. 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.

  61. 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.

  62. 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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