What do we leave our loved ones when we die? We leave legacies of love and sometimes legacies of wealth.
In the immediate aftermath of your demise, your loved ones will be struggling with their grief and trying to manage many logistical details that they have never faced before.
For a program at The First Parish in Bedford, I distilled these logistical details into the “Four Gifts” you can give your loved ones.
1. Organized Financial Structures
When you die, your assets must be distributed to your heirs. This is the responsibility of the Executor or Personal Representative of your estate. Certain accounts let you designate a beneficiary for those assets, and the institution hosting the account will distribute those assets directly to your named beneficiary. This is common for retirement and brokerage accounts, life insurance policies, and any assets in a trust. Bank accounts that are joint will automatically pass the funds to the other joint account holder. There are also “Transfer on Death” or “TOD” accounts available for checking and savings. Those, too, do not need Probate Court’s permission to transfer.
It should go without saying, but I will say it just in case: Double-check your beneficiaries! After a major life event, like a marriage or divorce, or birth of a child, update your beneficiary.”
Other assets need permission from the Probate Court before they can be distributed. When you have a will that names a personal representative and most assets have a listed beneficiary, your personal representative may be able to use a quicker probate process, called Voluntary Administration, to access assets.
In order for the person with the Power of Attorney and your Personal Representative to manage your finances, they need to know where to look. Keep a list of your assets and liabilities, and let your agents know where to find it.
2. Centralized Digital Information
Allowing your loved ones quick and easy access to your digital life is a tremendous gift. It will make administering your estate so much easier. It will also allow them access to your contacts and friends, to let them know of your death and memorial service.
Keep an up-to-date list of your online accounts (email, social media, bank, brokerage, utilities, etc.) and passwords. It can seem tedious and daunting, until you get the hang of it. You don’t need fancy software or an app to do it, but you can. If a paper copy works best for you, use paper. But if you do use paper, I implore you to write legibly!
Your computer, tablet, and smartphone have saved your passwords. That’s what makes it possible to avoid logging in each time you open your email. But, those saved passwords can expire if left alone for a few weeks.
Because they are the key to accessing your digital life, you should prioritize keeping a record of your passwords for: Email, phone, tablet, and laptop passwords; and AppleID.”
Let your agents know where your keep your list of up-to-date passwords. If you keep it in an app, be sure to write down the username and password for them.
3. Executed Estate Plan
Without the correct documentation, your loved ones will have to jump through more hoops in order to manage logistical details that otherwise would be simple, and once they need the document, it’s too late to do it again.
A complete estate plan includes, at the minimum, a Last Will, a Power of Attorney, and a Healthcare Proxy. Some estate plans include a trust or two, depending on circumstances. These documents allow your loved ones to manage your finances before and after your death and to make healthcare decisions for you if you’re incapacitated. If you have dependent children, your Last Will nominates your preferred guardian, and that’s always better than letting the courts do it for you.
Make sure that the named agents — the people given responsibility (your personal representative, healthcare proxy, trustee, etc.) — are aware of the document giving them responsibility, so they know to spring into action.
4. Clear Health Wishes
Give your loved ones the gift of knowing what you would want them to do, before it’s too late to tell them. When you designate a healthcare proxy, and a back-up proxy, tell them your wishes. They’re not legally required to follow them, but they will take comfort knowing that they are implementing what you would want. Give your proxies a copy of the document, and file copies with your medical provider. It does no good if it’s tucked away somewhere that no one can find it right away.
Additionally, your proxy should have a list of your medications and your health insurance information. If you have medical orders, like a Do Not Resuscitate Order or a Medical Order for Life Sustaining Treatment (“MOLST”), make sure that your proxy is aware, so they are not surprised in an emergency.
These are the four gifts you give your loved ones, to make it easier for them to manage the logistical details of your death while they’re grieving and not at their best.