Being an organized executor

An executor is the person appointed to administer the estate of a person who has died. Being named as an executor is a privilege, but the title also comes with a significant amount of responsibility. Sometimes it may take several years to finalize an estate if it is complicated or if there are disputes among the beneficiaries.

If you feel you cannot adequately perform the duties of the executor (perhaps you live across the country or you have extensive personal commitments), it is important that you do not start. You will need to speak with the lawyer handling the estate as soon as possible so a new estate administrator can be appointed.

If you have chosen to act as an executor, organization and careful record keeping will keep the task from becoming overwhelming.

It is important to set up a good filing system. You will need to keep copies of everything you have sent to and received from banks, the government, creditors, and beneficiaries, etc. It is a good idea to use a small portable filing box to set up the estate’s filing system so it is separate from your own house and business.

The folders should include the following:

  • Vital Records. This includes birth and marriage certificates, citizenship status, divorce decree, social security card, passport, etc. of the deceased.
  • Legal Papers. You will need the original and multiple certified copies of the death certificate. Also keep copies of the will, codicils, and living will, etc.
  • Employment Documents. This folder would contain all of the documents relating to the deceased’s employment and employment benefits. If the deceased was retired at the time of death, retirement and pension documents would be stored here.
  • Financial. The estate must have its own bank account, separate from your personal account and separate from the deceased’s accounts. Keep all deposit and withdrawal records, as well as statements. You will also need to keep proof of account closures and receipts for any debts paid (e.g. for the deceased’s credit cards).
  • Government. This folder would contain all documentation relating to the deceased’s income taxes, government pensions or other benefits.
  • House. If the deceased had a home, it should be made secure and the home insurance company must be notified as soon as possible. Keep all bills and receipts pertaining to the house in this file.
  • Automobile. If the deceased had a car, it should be located and secured. The car insurance company must be notified as soon as possible. Beneficiaries should not use the vehicle until it is clear that they are entitled to use it and that appropriate insurance is in place.
  • Other Assets. Keep records of other assets. You may wish to have a separate folder for larger assets such as a cottage or recreational vehicle. Smaller assets such as art or jewelry could be combined in the same file.
  • Estate Management Costs. If you have used any of your personal funds to administer the estate, such as purchasing postage stamps or paying for parking while at the lawyer’s office, keep the receipts. You may be able to claim this against the estate.

If you will be doing much of your communication via email, create an email address specifically for the estate. You should also set up a separate section or even a separate account on your computer, specifically to deal with the estate. To simplify organization, the names of the folders on your hard drive should mirror the names of the folders in your filing box.

Remember to save all email attachments to your hard drive especially if they are receipts or proofs of account closures. If the receipt is in the body of the email itself, print the email or save it to permanently readable, but non-editable format such as PDF.

Keep a journal documenting the work you have performed for the estate. A notebook is ideal for capturing this information. Record the dates and times you visited or phoned lawyers, bankers, and other estate advisors. Take notes during meetings. This will help when you need a reminder of what was discussed. You should also write down when death notices were sent and when accounts were marked closed. This alert you to outstanding tasks. Should there be any question about what you did and on which date, you’ll have your notebook to refer to.

Patience is crucial as an executor. You may be held personally liable if you rush and miss crucial legal steps. Many people wish to distribute the assets quickly, but it is usually against the law for you to do this until you have proper legal authorization. This authorization, or probate, varies widely across jurisdictions so it is very important to get advice from the estate lawyers before proceeding.

Although many people think they should pay bills as soon as they come in, they should not necessarily do this. In most cases, creditors (e.g. the electric company) are notified of the death and must wait for payment until the probate court prioritizes the list of creditor claims. Additionally, it’s important to remember not to let Cousin Bertha even take her favorite salt and pepper shakers from the estate until the authorization process is complete, and creditors have been paid.

Having an attorney who knows the rules in the deceased jurisdiction is essential. Attorneys can also help mediate beneficiary disputes, which can sometimes become unpleasant.

The role of executor can be challenging but working with attorneys and other professionals as well as keeping organized and detailed records, can ensure that the estate will be settled smoothly.

Have you had the experience of being an executor? What organizational tips do you suggest?

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

  • Unitasker Wednesday: Unplastic Tray
    The Unplastic Tray, especially for people who want to look like they’re serving store-bought cookies in a plastic tray but who are really duping their guests by serving store-bought cookies in a glass tray.

2012

  • Six simple ways to gain more time in your day
    Six simple steps you can do every day to save a little time in your schedule.
  • Unitasker Wednesday: Corn Desilker
    In all of my years of shucking, cooking, and eating a ridiculous amount of corn, I have never once thought I needed a device to remove the silk from an ear. However, someone out there apparently thinks I am wrong and believes a special tool is necessary for doing a very simple task that your hands can do. Exhibit A: The Corn Desilker.
  • Breaking projects down into simple, achievable steps
    When you break projects down into simple, achievable steps, you set yourself up for success. You are more likely to complete a project when the steps to “done” are clear.

2011

  • Organizing advice from classical Greeks
    More than 2,000 years ago, famous Greek philosopher Socrates and a man named Isomachus were having a discussion about how Isomachus wished his wife would run their home (the conversation is recorded by Xenophon in chapter eight of his writing Oeconomicus). Isomachus told Socrates he had asked his wife to keep house by finding a place for everything and having everything in its place.
  • Unitasker Wednesday: Coffee Grinder Brush
    Sadly, this specialized brush can’t do the job of getting particulates out of your grinder any better than a pastry brush (which you probably already own if you’re grinding your own coffee and spices).

2010

  • You are not your stuff
    I was recently captivated by the article “The mess he made: A life-long slob decides it’s time to get organized” by Michael Rosenwald in the June 7 issue of The Washington Post. As the title of the article references, the piece is a first-person narrative of a diagnosed hoarder who went to see Randy Frost for help to change his ways. During Rosenwald’s visits with Frost, he came to the following inspiring conclusion:
  • Organizing your home and family with notebooks
    Notebooks are great because they keep all of your important papers in one place and they are easily portable. In our home, we have a recipe notebook, appliance notebook (instruction manuals, purchase receipts, maintenance and repair receipts, and warranty information), and important information notebooks for all four of us (our cat even has one).

2009

  • The Uniform Project
    We’ve recently stumbled upon The Uniform Project and are amazed at the variety Sheena Matheiken is getting from a single dress and a lot of accessories.

Being organized when requesting tech support

Since it’s 2014 and you’re reading this on a digital device, I’m assuming you are aware that technology can help keep your work and personal life organized. Occasionally, however, technology can be a problem and prevent you from getting to your organizational tools and resources. When you find yourself in need of tech support and turn to a friend, relative, or technology professional, you’ll be more successful at getting your problem solved (and solved more quickly) if you first do some planning.

The following information is extremely helpful if you can gather it together before requesting tech support. The more you have, the better.

  1. Write out problem in detail. What exactly were you doing when the problem occurred? Composing an email? Visiting a web site? Updating a piece of software? Which one? Be as specific as you can.
  2. Learn to take a screenshot. Often times, problems are accompanied by error messages, which can be cryptic and hard to recall. Getting a screenshot is a great way to preserve the message itself. Here’s how to grab a screenshot: On a Mac, hold down the Shift key, the Command key and the 3 key simultaneously. On a Windows PC, just press the Print Screen key. Windows 7 and above have a program called Snipping Tool that will grab a screenshot for you. Just click Start and begin typing “Snipping Tool.” It’s got options for full screen, the active selection and the active window. If you aren’t comfortable taking a screen shot, write down the error message you received.
  3. Have any relevant passwords, user names or login information on hand. Often times, work cannot continue until this information has been retrieved. To this end, I recommend a piece of software called 1Password. Its job is to create, store, and remember secure passwords for you. It’s fantastic. If you prefer to go old school, get a paper notebook specifically for this purpose. Be sure to keep it in a secure place and do not lose it.
  4. Identify what system and version you are using. Are you on Windows 7 or Mavericks? What hardware and what is the make and model? It’s possible that an issue that exists in version x.0 was corrected in version x.1.
  5. Can you reproduce the error? This is typically the first step a tech support person will do: try to re-create the trouble you experienced. If you can make it happen reliably and consistently, note the steps that trigger the problem.
  6. What have you already done, if anything, to troubleshoot this issue? You could save a lot of time by listing anything you’ve already tried.

Once the work has begun, consider:

  1. Making notes of what IT support says. It may save you a headache in the future.
  2. Keeping an open mind. The answer you receive might not be what you were wishing for or expecting. Try not to be discouraged.

Of course, you might be able to find the answer yourself. Don’t underestimate the power of a good online search or simply turning your device off and turning it back on.

Thanks to Jacki Hollywood Brown and Damien Barrett for contributing to this article.

Unitasker Wednesday: Leifheit 37200 Cherrymat Cherrystone Remover

All Unitasker Wednesday posts are jokes — we don’t want you to buy these items, we want you to laugh at their ridiculousness. Enjoy!

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not much of a fan of cherries (that is unless they’re candied and slathered in chocolate or soaked in maraschino liqueur, because those types of cherries are tolerable). Until I had children, I didn’t even own a cherry pitter — no need for one. Then, last spring, my then-three-year-old son declared that he loved cherries and that he wanted to eat “all the cherries in the world.” So, like mothers tend to do when their kids express eagerness about eating fresh fruit when it’s in season, I tried my best to buy all the cherries and also picked up a $15 cherry pitter to make the process of eating a cherry less troublesome for the kid.

The device is quite simple to use and I even made a few cherry pies at the start of the summer (humming the atrocious “Cherry Pie” song the entire time, no thanks to Warrant). It’s small, it does what it needs to do, it can also be used on olives, and in May of this year I started regularly using it again when cherries came back into season.

Seeing as there is this totally useful, small device that has existed for hundreds of years to effectively remove pits from cherries, you can imagine my amazement (horror?) when I came across this monstrosity — the Leifheit 37200 Cherrymat Cherrystone Remover

Oh my goodness, this thing is huge. Unless you own an enormous bakery or restaurant, I don’t know why anyone would sacrifice so much storage space for a cherry pitter. It does the exact same thing as the smaller model — one at a time pit removal — at about the same speed but at more than double the price ($40). And it’s not alone, the Norpro Deluxe Cherry Pitter is almost as large. There is an entire market of giant cherry pit removers!

With any product you choose to keep in your home, you should ask yourself if it’s worth the storage space (and for a seasonal product like this, you have to consider at least nine months of storage each year without any use). Specifically, a giant cherry pitter is likely not worth it, especially when there is a significantly smaller product that does the exact same thing with the same amount of effort. Or, if you’re like me and don’t like cherries, owning the smaller cherry pitter might not even be worth the storage space. It’s good to think about the items you already own and about anything you are considering purchasing — do you need the Leifheit 37200 Cherrymat Cherrystone Remover when a less expensive and smaller handheld cherry pitter will completely meet your needs? You’ll have to make the call, but it’s something to consider. Your space, time, and money are limited — are you okay with making these tradeoffs in pursuit of the life you desire? Only you know the answer.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

2012

2011

2010

2009

Writing emails that won’t be clutter

We’re all deluged with email; it’s a problem of the digital age. Noting this, how do you ensure your email is considered worthy of attention, and not seen as just more inbox clutter?

Be concise

Sometimes your email involves sharing a story with friends, and messages like that don’t always need to be succinct. But, if you’re writing to someone because you want some sort of reply — you’re asking for information, trying to set up an appointment, etc. — make it as easy as possible for the recipient. Don’t make someone wade through a long story to find out what you want.

But don’t be too brief; do include all the information needed for the other person to provide a meaningful response. I’ve seen many people asking for help about some computer-related problem without providing key information, such as what type of computer they’re using, what version of the software they are running, the specific error messages they are seeing, etc. Provide as much as necessary and little or nothing more.

Follow the policies of the group

Are you part of any mailing list, like a Yahoo Group or something else? Many of these groups have guidelines about how members should structure their messages; if your group has such guidelines, be sure to read them and follow them.

Since I’m a moderator of a freecycle group, this is a continual issue for me. We have specific subject line formats, a policy about how often things may be re-offered, etc. It causes more time and work (and frustration) for everyone when the policies are not followed.

Address the email properly

Do you want to reply, or reply all? Think about your recipient list, and whether everyone on that list really needs to see the message.

If you’re sending a message to a group of people, other than in a work situation, please respect everyone’s privacy and do not put all the email addresses in the To: field, where all the recipients can see them. Rather, put those email addresses in the Bcc: field.

Watch what you forward

I’ve seen many a well-intentioned person forward on a message alerting me to some horrifying problem, when a quick check of Snopes.com would show that the information simply isn’t true. If something sounds at all suspicious, please check it out before forwarding.

Also, make sure the people you’re sending those messages with cute animal photos or jokes really want to get them. People are often reluctant to hurt someone’s feelings by asking to get removed from such lists, even if they don’t want the emails — so you might add a note letting your recipients know that you want them to tell you if they’d prefer not to get such emails.

Avoid long signature files

There is certain information people usually want to see in your signature file, and your contact information is at the top of the list. But many people would prefer you skip your favorite quote, a list of every award you’ve ever won, and an admonishment to not print the email.

Consider that not all emails need the same signature. A reply might not need as much information as the email where you’re initiating a conversation. If you’re going back and forth in an email exchange, and you included your long signature file the first time, you don’t need to include it on every message in the chain.

It also looks a bit silly when you send a two-line message and have a 20-line signature file.

Be considerate with attachments

People might be reading email on a slow connection, so maybe it’s best not to include a 5 MB photo.

Review emails for problematic wording

For casual emails between friends, you can skip this step. But for others, I’d recommend reviewing your emails for points of possible ambiguity. Also, look for anything that might be taken the wrong way; humor and sarcasm often don’t work well in email, and snarky comments might come back to haunt you later.

Remember, too, that if crafting an email might take you 20 minutes, but a phone call only five, picking up the phone could be the least cluttered option available to you.

More organizational systems that changed history

Image circa 1967 from the Special Collections of Queen’s University Library, Kingston, Ontario Canada

Image circa 1967 from the Special Collections of Queen’s University Library, Kingston, Ontario Canada

Up until 150 years ago, only wealthy and well-educated people visited libraries. Librarians, who knew exactly what books were on what shelves, served these privileged patrons. By the mid-1800s, more and more people received an education and libraries became open to the public. Librarians could not serve everyone and patrons were expected to search for their own books.

In that era, libraries placed books on their shelves based on when the library acquired the book and the book’s size. Imagine going into a library and trying to find a book that the library acquired the previous year, that is about 10 inches tall with a blue cover and silver lettering.

In 1873 Melvil Dewey created a classification system to organize published works by fields of study. There are ten main classes (000 – 999), which cover the entirety of human knowledge. Each main class is divided into ten divisions, and each division into ten sections. Each book is assigned a Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) number based on its subject matter. This makes it possible to find a book using its DDC number and return it to its correct place on the shelves.

Classifying a work with the DDC requires determination of the subject and the disciplinary focus, and the author’s intent. This enables works that are used in the same way, to be found in the same area. For example, a book about disease transmission statistics written by a mathematician would be classed in medicine, not mathematics, along with other works on disease control. Librarians use subject keywords, author name, and book title to create the famous card catalogue in which patrons can look for books in which they are interested.

Today the Dewey Decimal Classification system is used across the world. It is continuously revised to keep pace with knowledge and has been translated into over thirty languages. Most people assume that the Dewey name is in the public domain. However, the OCLC Online Computer Library Center holds the trademark on the Dewey name and classification system.

Not so long ago, back in the mid-1990s, only a few technologically savvy people were using the Internet. At that time, tech companies hired human librarians to catalogue the information on the Internet and create directories. This was a slow, cumbersome system that required the end user to click through many pages to find specific information. Additionally, there were billions of web pages and they changed so frequently that librarians could not keep pace.

Two gentlemen, Larry Page and Sergey Brin imagined that computers, not humans, could do a much better and faster job of searching websites all over the world. Page and Brin started looking at patterns of data and how the data were connected to each other. They used that information to create a better search engine and in 1998 introduced the world to Google.

“Searching” may not be considered a “traditional” organizational system but as John Battelle explained, “[Google] clarified and cleared up the clutter of the Internet and made it possible to find what you were looking for quickly and easily.”

Melvil Dewey, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin may have created different organizational systems for information, but the end result was the same, and more knowledge is more easily available to more people.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

2012

  • Are you ready for an uncluttered career?
    Cluttered jobs lend themselves to creating frustration, unproductive stress, and disappointment. Like all other forms of clutter, is now the right time for you to clear the clutter and get on the path to a happier work life? Chris Guillebeau’s new book The $100 Startup might be the book to help you get started on your new uncluttered career.

2011

2009

Being an organized voter

Having just voted in California’s primary election June 3, I’ve got voting on my mind. It can be easy to skip voting if you feel overwhelmed by the process. Being organized can help alleviate that anxiety and get you to the polls prepared and on time.

Get registered, if you’re not already

USA.gov provides information on how to register, how to change your registration information, as well as registration deadlines for each state. The United States Election Assistance Commission will also direct you to election-related information specific to your state.

Be sure to re-register if you’ve changed your name, your address, or if you want to change your party affiliation.

Decide when you’re going to vote

Do you quality for (and need) an absentee ballot? If so, be sure to apply for one within the given time limits.

Does your state provide the option of vote-by-mail ballots? If so, you may want to apply for that option and avoid lines at the polls. Simply request and then mail in your completed ballot by the required dates. In many places, you can still turn in your vote-by-mail ballot at your polling station on election day if you change your mind, which is what I almost always do.

If you’re not going to vote by mail, be sure to know your polling location. And, know when you can vote; some states have early in-person voting, while others are restricted to a single election day. Be sure you know the hours your polling place is open, too.

Decide how to vote

People go about deciding how to vote in a number of ways. Sometimes we don’t need to do any specific research; by election day, we’ve been inundated with information about most high-profile candidates.

But, what about the candidates and issues that aren’t so high-profile? I just had to vote on superior court justices, my county coroner, and two competing propositions regarding a bridge in my city that needs to be repaired or replaced. Information about local and state-wide issues is often more work to obtain — you have to be proactive.

I get information from a number of sources:

  • The Smart Voter website, provided by the League of Women Voters. This gives me the candidates’ official statements, and links to their websites, which are often helpful.
  • The information mailed out by the secretary of state. This gives me the text of all propositions, the impartial analysis from the legislative analyst’s office, and the official arguments for and against those propositions. (Some of this, but not all of it, is also available at Smart Voter.)
  • Newspaper editorials, found online. Here I’m looking for sites that provide the reason why they were endorsing a candidate or a position, so I can decide whether or not their logic makes sense to me. I read at least two endorsements in this past election that helped convince me to vote in the opposite direction from what was being recommended. I like to read a number of editorials, not just one. I have a list of newspapers whose websites I usually check.
  • Knowledgeable people. How much do I know about my local water district and the members of its governing board? I know a bit, but I know someone whose opinions I respect who knows a lot. So I asked him for his recommendation on that election, last fall.
  • Endorsements: Again, when i research endorsements, I’m looking for those who might have specific expertise about issues and candidates that I don’t have. When looking at the candidates for superior court judges, I looked at the endorsements from the existing superior court judges, especially those I know and respect.

Finally, weighing all of the information I’ve gathered, I make my decision and mark my ballot.

Unitasker Wednesday: Multicolor Ocean Wave Light Projector

All Unitasker Wednesday posts are jokes — we don’t want you to buy these items, we want you to laugh at their ridiculousness. Enjoy!

Do you like to dream you’re drowning and then wake up in a total panic because it actually looks and sounds like you are immersed in water? If so, I have the perfect thing for you! The Multicolor Ocean Wave Light Projector:

As for me, I don’t find the sensation of drowning to be “an enjoyable experience,” as the product description suggests. I also don’t find drowning to be “an atmosphere of calm.” The phrases I would use to describe the conditions of being under water would be “anxiety causing” and “unimaginably terrifying.” And the phrase I would use to describe the sounds of running water coming out of the device’s speakers would be “probably pee inducing.”

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

  • How do you deal with refrigerator door clutter?
    Dave uses his refrigerator door as his family’s central information station … with horrible results. He wants to know all the tips and tricks the Unclutterer community implores to solve this common problem.

2011

2010

2009

The Noguchi filing system

I’ve said this before, and so has fellow Unclutterer writer Jacki Hollywood Brown: I’m always willing to try a new system if it might turn out to be better than the one I’m using. I was reminded of this earlier when reminiscing about my old job and the Noguchi filing system. It was devised by Japanese economist Noguchi Yukio, and for about a year I used it extensively.

The Premise

Years ago, I worked in the IT department of a residential school. There was a lot to manage, from help desk requests to purchasing, maintenance, networking issues, and other administrative tasks. I typically had several projects ongoing at once, large and small. Nearly all of them had support files that needed to be referenced or updated regularly. This is where the Noguchi system was brilliant, as it moves frequently-used files together while creating an archive of seldom used files.

The Setup

Image: Dave Gray, Communicationnation.blogspot.com

Instead of a filing cabinet or set of drawers, you’ll need an open shelf and several 9″ x 12″ (or larger) envelopes. Using scissors, cut the flap off the top of the envelope, as shown above. You cut the top off to make it super easy to get at the envelope’s contents. Next, write the date and title along the side of the envelope. Again, see the image at above for a reference. Make one envelope per project and place the envelopes next to each other on the shelf, with the date and title side facing outward.

In Practice

Don’t attempt to organize, classify, or otherwise sort the envelopes. It will be tempting to do so, but the beauty here is that the system takes care of organizing for you. As you take a folder off the shelf to use it, return it to the far left. Over time, three things happen:

  1. The folders you use most often appear on the left hand side. Because you access them regularly, you always know where they are. With time, the project you work on most often will be in the leftmost envelope. Then the next project in the second left position, and then the next, all the way down the line.
  2. Files you use less frequently will migrate to the middle and right. You know how hard it can be to find a paper or file you seldom use? With the Noguchi system it’s easy because you know it’s not on the left.
  3. The files you never access make it to the far right. These “holy files,” as the system calls them, can be removed from the shelf and safely archived away or purged, thereby preventing the shelf from getting cluttered with countless envelopes.

You can color code your envelopes if you want. This is most useful when archiving, as you can quickly find what you need in that pile, or sort them by color once they’re off the shelf. Finally, since you needn’t spend time organizing the envelopes on the shelf, you save a lot of time.

Give it a try and let me know what you think. It can take a couple of weeks to set it up (moving everything into an envelope) and kick in (as you move files right and left and on and off the shelf), but it’s a nice system for managing multiple projects once you get it established.