Is Your Family Prepared for Your Death?
by Melonie Kennedy
The preparedness community is incredibly diverse. From the wide variety of natural disasters that can strike depending on the region in which we live, to the catalysts that have driven us to become prepared, to how far along we are in our preparedness journey – there are just as many differences as there are common themes.
No matter where we live or what we believe, we all have one absolute: death
My family mourned the loss of several relatives over the past few years, including my grandmother late in 2018. As I reflected on her passing, I realized that her prudence and forethought allowed our family to grieve without the additional strain of dealing with the sudden administrative issues that can arise with one’s death. Over the years, my grandparents made wise financial choices that created a bit of a nest egg for their retirement and care in their golden years.
They also recognized the need to establish legal “preps” that created boundaries, explained their desires for their estate, and covered their health and welfare needs during illness. Choosing to develop legal and medical directives, and keeping the appropriate individuals in the loop through clear communication of updates, became particularly important with the onset of dementia.
It smoothed the path somewhat for the family member in charge of my grandmother’s affairs as her health degraded. When she passed, dealing with the legal and financial issues was undoubtedly not easy, per se, but it was relatively seamless and gave that family member room to breathe and mourn our loss.
In honor of what my grandmother taught us, I share the wisdom of her generation with you
I hope that this list of issues to address and resources for doing so will help you understand how you can be better prepared to handle a death in your family or help your survivors manage administrative issues if they lose you.
As many families assess ways to move forward from the COVID-19 pandemic, consider if this is an excellent time to discuss estate topics and share information. With significant lifestyle changes such as graduations and moves on many people’s minds, we can discuss, make decisions, and then address planning solutions with the appropriate advisors to make arrangements before they are needed.
First things first: No matter your financial achievements, if you own anything or have any potential heirs, it is vital to create a will. Ask any family law attorney for a horror story or two of estate settlements; you might be amazed at the seemingly trivial items friends and family will literally come to blows over when a loved one passes! It is imperative to communicate your wants and needs in advance and leave no questions about who is in charge, what you want done, and what needs to be handled.
Research the laws for your area, particularly if creating a will could create a financial burden for you. In some cases, you may be able to download a template and write your own will; in other areas, you may be required to have the document written by an attorney and filed with a specific legal body.
No matter what, put it in writing: Having your wishes in writing is always better than having no documentation at all. If finances are an issue, there may be options for getting legal advice and documents depending upon your professional and organizational qualifications. For instance, if you are active duty military (or a spouse), your Judge Advocate General (JAG) office will have resources for estate planning in the state you are currently stationed.
They will also assist you with updates each time you move since your legal situation may be influenced by where you are located versus what state you claim as your Home of Record. (Military retirees, reserve service members, and members of the National Guard may have access to some of these services as well – contact your closest JAG office for details.)
If you are a member of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP): You may have access to member benefits that help with estate planning issues. Even if you aren’t a member, AARP offers multiple free and paid resources on their website, including a personal estate planning kit for download. Lastly, prepaid legal services often include a will with membership, with free updates whenever you have a lifestyle change, such as marriage/divorce, birth or adoption of a child, or a move to another state.
What other documents should you consider putting into play?
Talk with your legal, financial, and medical advisors to decide whether it would be appropriate or necessary for you to create the following:
- Powers of Attorney (non-durable, durable, special/limited, medical, or springing)
- Advance medical directives (Do Not Resuscitate [DNR] and/or Do Not Intubate [DNI] order, living will, health care power of attorney, Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST), organ and tissue donation instructions; written directions for treatment during pregnancy [if applicable])
- Additional account ownership or joint account for banking services (safe deposit box, investment/brokerage accounts, checking and savings)
The person handling your affairs must know who to contact
In the event of your death or inability to care for yourself, the family member or friend you trust with handling your affairs needs to know who to contact for those duties. Create a document or address book for your executor or caregiver that provides contact information for all applicable advisors – financial, legal, tax, adult/family services, clergy, and healthcare providers.
Speak with the office manager for each service provider to have the appropriate form on file with them, permitting them to discuss your case or accounts with your chosen personal administrator. Don’t forget to provide access to safe combinations, secured records (print or digital), location of spare keys, and vital tangible preps that should be found and secured, cashed out, or rotated if perishable.
Consider prepaying for funeral arrangements if possible
Prepaying for funeral arrangements makes it easier for survivors emotionally to contact the appropriate person and have them take over on handling things per your expressed wishes. It can also help curb in-fighting and possible surprise expenses when everyone has gathered at a funeral home trying to make arrangements.
At the very least, if you can’t afford at this time to prepay for your funeral or do not know where you’d like your final resting place to be, document what you would like done as a method of assisting your survivors, as well as what you do not want them to do when you pass. If you are just fine with cremation and a quiet memorial service, let them know before they go into debt paying for an expensive casket and huge burial event!
Your will isn’t just about expensive tangibles and investment accounts
Your will gives direction regarding your children’s custody and care, who will receive your pets and livestock, and more. Take time to think all of these things through on your own, perhaps jotting down some notes of your ideas. If you have a significant other, explain to them that you want to get these issues figured out during 2020 and ask them to do the same.
Schedule a time to sit down and discuss these topics with your spouse, family members, or specialty caregivers, whether to create an agreement (in the case of your spouse) or to explain your requests and expectations. If age-appropriate, include any children in the discussion to provide feedback regarding potential caregivers and custodians. Don’t forget to communicate with said custodians as well. In the event of your death, don’t let the arrival of your child, your dog, or your favorite sheep be an even more shocking surprise!
If your child’s guardian is outside the country, prepare for an easy transition by getting all of the essential paperwork in place now. The guardian will be required to show birth certificates, death certificates, and a copy of the will at the very least to bring your child home with them.
Don’t think you only need a will if you have a million-dollar home or a yacht
Even if you are a renter, there are issues your loved ones will need to address. For instance, your survivors will need to know your landlord’s contact information and where to access your lease or rental agreement; they will need to contact any insurance companies or lien holders in the case of a home with a mortgage on it. Assuming that, like mine, your assets are relatively modest, there will still be items in your home that certain friends and family members will want or that you’d like to pass things on to.
It is particularly possible in the preparedness community; perhaps you want your spinning wheel and loom to be given to your niece, the fiber hound, or you want them donated to the local fiber arts guild where you learned to spin. Maybe you want your great-grandfather’s hunting rifle to go to your son-in-law, or you’ve already bequeathed it to a firearms museum.
If you believe that your survivors won’t know the true value of your food storage or medical supplies, select an organization or fellow prepper that you want those items to go to, document those wishes as appropriate, and devise a system marking the items for identification. (I’ve read of families who communicate openly about such issues putting stickers – color-coded by child or grandchild – in hidden spots on family heirlooms whenever such discussions come up.)
When it comes to your stuff, consider decluttering while you are able.
Making the time to dispose of unneeded or unwanted items now doesn’t just make life easier on you – it means that your heirs can sort out things more quickly and, if necessary, free up your home for sale or your apartment to be turned back to your landlord. During this decluttering, you can also inventory your belongings for insurance purposes (a handy prep should you face a disaster such as a house fire or hurricane damage) and get things better organized to find preparedness gear whenever needed by your family.
If you need some inspiration, take a few minutes to research the Swedish concept of döstädning, or the “art of death cleaning.” This is a process during which families, particularly elderly family members, declutter slowly but steadily so that their passing isn’t an enormous burden for those left behind. The process can also be the perfect time to find and document the technological and legal items survivors may need, such as passwords to computers and online accounts and other vital information discussed above.
Editor’s Note: If you, like most preppers, have some great hiding places in your home for valuables like cash, jewelry, precious metals, and firearms, someone needs to know where the stash is. This is of urgent importance if you are a renter. In that case, somebody you trust should know where your valuables are hidden. If there’s going to be a little bit of time to clear out your home, a letter to your heir can be put in a safety deposit box or the care of your attorney. ~ Daisy
You are doing your loved ones a great service by addressing these issues in advance
Depending on your cultural and religious background, this entire topic may feel off-putting, morbid, or depressing. Some family members may not be open to a frank discussion of such matters, so it may take a little while to get the ball rolling on estate planning. Your forethought and planning will create a situation where your loved ones can hand over the administrative tasks to the appropriate individuals and then process their loss at their own speed – dealing with the stages of grief without the additional burden of chasing accounts, figuring out what goes to whom, and making decisions without the benefit of much-needed information.
Passing on peace of mind could be the best model of personal preparedness you can provide for them. It’s worth a bit of discomfort to take these steps for your loved ones.
Are there any specific preparations you’ve made that aren’t covered in this article? Do you have any experiences to share that taught you a lesson about estate planning? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Melonie Kennedy is a military wife and homeschooling mother who sometimes forgets her own sweater while asking everyone else about theirs. You can visit her online at www.MelonieK.com.
About the Author
Melonie Kennedy is a military wife, homeschooling mom, writer, and preparedness consultant. Her work has appeared in a variety of print and online publications. You can find her at her website, www.MelonieK.com, and on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/WanderingQuailRoad