Most of us avoid the topic of death, especially around our older family members. But end-of-life planning—also called death planning—doesn’t have to be scary. In fact, many older folks have a sense of when they’re rounding third base and would prefer to get their ducks in a row so that loved ones don’t have to bear the burden after they pass.
If you, a friend, or a family member is reaching this stage of your life, you may want help knowing what needs to be done—and perhaps, why it is important. Because although end-of-life preparations may help ensure your assets move quickly to your heirs, unchallenged, they may also help ready your loved ones for the little things that your passing may affect.
Death planning checklist
Here’s a checklist to help you through the process and organize your life before you pass. Of course, everyone’s circumstances differ, but in general, these nine steps should ease the burden on your loved ones’ shoulders.
Assign/review beneficiaries on your accounts
Many people think that having a written Last Will and Testament (Will) is the best, or only, way to distribute assets easily to the heirs. But while it is extremely important, it does not eliminate the chance of delays and challenges. Assets covered by your Will still go through probate court.
Assets with named beneficiaries do not. They pass immediately to your heirs upon your passing. So, this is a foolproof way to speed your assets to your heirs.
Best of all, you can complete the process very quickly. (Deciding how to divide them takes longer, though. But that’s the way it should be, right?)
Once you have a plan, just go online to each investment and bank account and assign one or more primary and secondary beneficiaries to each account. To divide accounts evenly, just name multiple primary beneficiaries.
Create/gather key documents
It’s unfortunate that only 46% of Americans have a Will,1 because settling even small estates without one can take a long time and yield results that cause a lot of grief and disappointment. While a greater percentage of older people have a Will (75%)2 many are not up-to-date.3 This can lead to unpleasant outcomes such as leaving someone out of an inheritance!
So, do your heirs a huge favor and draft one. If you are delaying because it seems daunting, break it down: Do a simple one first, and improve it later. Just get started.
In addition, there are several other documents you should have. They aren’t difficult and should not be postponed. You can create these on your own, using online resources. But many people make an appointment with an estate planner to get guidance and the assurance of doing everything right.
The minimum documents to gather or create are:
- Last Will and Testament. In this document, you express how your assets will be allocated and name an executor to carry out your desires (also called a personal representative). Some states require notarized Wills.
- Living Will. This is also called an Advance Directive. In this, you give written direction for your medical care if you remain alive but in a vegetative state. This may include, for example, the circumstances for a DNR (Do not resuscitate) directive.
- Power of Attorney (POA). In this document, you name a person to make legal decisions for you if you cannot.
- Medical Power of Attorney. This is where you name a person to make healthcare decisions for you if you are incapable of communicating—but are not in a vegetative state.
- Trust(s), if you have one. Trusts are legal accounts you create in which you can specify long-term plans for how your assets will be managed and dispersed. For example, if you have underage children, you can create a trust which names a person (Trustee) to manage your assets until your children are of majority age.
- Guardianship designations. In this document, you name people to become guardians of your children if you pass while they are underage.
- Letter of Intent. This is a letter in which you can describe your broader intentions about the division or management of your assets. This can help clear up differing interpretations of your Will.
Get a wealth plan
Do you have a wealth advisor? If so, introduce your spouse or adult children to your advisor and get them involved in the conversations. In many households, one person—often the husband—manages the finances.4 Leaving a spouse out of the conversations puts him/her at a disadvantage if they are the survivor. Surveys show that men are more likely to control their finances as wealth increases. We believe it is for each partner’s benefit to get both partners involved and comfortable with financial conversations and plans.
If your spouse isn’t comfortable with your current advisor or you don’t have one yet, address this or try finding one you are both comfortable with. If your spouse is not comfortable with the topic, take extra diligence with your planner to ensure your wealth is set up for easy distribution and management for your surviving spouse and other heirs.
Ideally, once you are both comfortable with your team and the benefit of working together, sit down with your advisor and make a wealth plan. Discuss each account and each document thoroughly, covering its purpose, strategy, and destination. Make sure that the less comfortable spouse can ask questions. Take notes so that that spouse can review them later for easy recall.
Name and communicate with the executor of your estate
Most people name the executor of their estate in their Will. But don’t make the assignment a mystery for them to unravel after your death. Let them know so that you can explain your preferences and they can ask questions. It can be a big job, and they’ll surely appreciate some advance notice and assistance.
Organize digital passwords and IDs
In all likelihood, accessing your private documents requires IDs and passwords that you have taken pains to keep secret.
Does your spouse or executor know how to access them should your passing be sudden? For this reason, organize your IDs and passwords in a way that is safe and easy to understand.
And discuss how to locate them with the people who will need to know. It can be hard enough for heirs to understand a deceased person’s cryptic notes. But with technology changing quickly, it can be even harder.
Talk to your loved ones about your wishes for your end-of-life care
Communication is vital to making your end-of-life planning successful. If you have several heirs who might be interested in helping tend to your end-of-life business, express your wishes to all of them at once. Avoid having small individual conversations with different people. This can lead to disagreements when they remember the conversations differently.
For example, who will be the executor of the estate, and who is next in line if necessary? For things that are difficult or impossible to divide, like heirlooms, ask who is interested in receiving them. For zero confusion, put it in an email to all of them. Being clear is the best way to treat your heirs.
Plan for the care of your pets
Leaving the care of your pets up to someone else, such as your executor, to decide after you pass may not be a comfortable job for that person. Nor is it the best plan for your pets. You know your pets best—what they need and where they could be happiest. Talk to family and friends who might want them and see if you can set up their adoptive family in advance. You’ll be happier knowing their guardianship is all set rather than leaving it up to chance. And so will your pets!
Share your stories and memories
Much of this has focused on the division of material goods and things to do. Now let’s discuss the other part of end-of-life planning. The emotional part. After your assets are divided, your heirs will have the rest of their lives to consider your real legacy to them. What do they remember about you? How do they feel about you? What did you leave them emotionally?
For most of your heirs, this will be the most important part of your legacy to them. By far.
So, share your memories generously when you can. Offer your stories. Don’t assume your family isn’t interested in “old-time” recollections. Survivors often say, “I wish I’d heard more about that part of mom’s life, but I never thought to ask.” The reality is family members may not know your stories exist. Take the time to remember your life, call your siblings to stir memories, and share your stories with your kids and grandkids. They are valuable gifts. If you can’t think of many, simply ask questions like, “Is there anything about Grandpa’s early years you want to know about? Did you know I went to Paris when I was 21?”
Discuss the celebration of your life
Some people find it natural to express to their family how to celebrate their lives. (Have a big party, invite everyone!) Others may be modest and underplay it. But a celebration of your life is important for your loved ones. Take the time to express your wishes in advance. This will make it more meaningful to those who care and attend.
Do you want certain songs played? Certain poems read? Do you want your favorite stories told? Do you want your ashes spread on a mountaintop or in the ocean? The more you can discuss this with your family, the better prepared they will be to make it happen.
And the more cherished the experience will be for them.