I’ve written this post 3 different times in the past 24 hours. Each time I write it get caught up in a theme and a trend, and I end up talking about things and giving advice on things I really have no business talking about.
I’m just a guy. Who lost his dad. And who learned some things as a result of that process that I thought would be worth documenting and sharing here. Each situation is different. I am happy to talk to anyone who wants to talk and share my $.02. Email me if you want: suneet (@) gmail (dot) com
The purpose of this post is to build on those fundamental steps and move forward; as a result, I’ve organized the post into four sections:
- The Fundamentals (what to think about first)
- The Individual (my Daddy)
- The Spouse (my Mom)
- The Intended Beneficiaries (my sis, me, Priya, the kids, everyone else)
Each builds upon the prior. An important distinction because as a person, depending on age and responsibility, you can be the Individual thinking through legacy, the Spouse of someone who’s thinking through legacy, and, the Designated Beneficiary responsible for carrying forward someone else’s legacy. Most of my friends and peers are actually all three.
A Note on the Fundamentals
There is an underlying assumption here. That you have already:
- made a will;
- considered and evaluated a trust;
- documented all assets and ownership (financial accounts with joint ownership or designated beneficiaries, hard assets with titles of ownership, like cars and house(s)); and
- created a digital will, too. Yup. Accounts, usernames, passwords, for all online presences.
None of the below matters unless you’ve completed the above and established a baseline. There are hoards of resources available to you if you want to move forward; I urge you that if you are to start with an Estate Attorney make sure you talk to the Attorney about their services included up to the inevitable moment, and, what they provide after. Get clarity upfront. I issue this warning a few times because it can’t be overstated.
A Note to the Individual
If you are a person with things, then you are “the individual”. The person who will die at some point and who will leave people behind to take over. This is one of the biggest things I learned in my experience with my Daddy. He had everything incredibly under control, but, he was also terrible at communicating about it.
Lesson #1: When you’re gone, you’re gone. You won’t be available for questions.
Involve the people you love in your process. Talk to them about your attorney. About your plan. About your goals. About where things are. It doesn’t matter how organized you are; life happens in the most ridiculous of ways. Involve the other two cohorts above (spouse, beneficiaries) in the discussion early (as you plan) and often (as things change). This is the single most important thing you can do, even above being organized. Because being organized may be helpful to you, but in the heat of the moment, it’s hard for people to think like you’ve thought and follow your logic — as organized as you think you are, if you haven’t tested your plan with the people on the other side, i assure you, it won’t be perfect.
Make sure your account lists are up-to-date. Make sure your key documents are easy-to-find. Make sure your usernames and passwords are available. Make sure none of this stuff is more than a year old.
In Daddy’s case, he spent a lifetime providing for everyone around him. He was better organized than most people I have spoken to about the same circumstances — but there’s always room to be better.
Lesson # 2: Think about the first 90 days after you’re gone. What’s the plan?
Most guidance on how to think about your death focuses heavily on what you have ready at the point of death. A will (for assignment), and trust (for added coverage and protections), a list of documents (for easy tracking of assets). The better you are on that front, amazing. But I don’t think it’s enough. Stop. Take a step back. What does the life of your spouse and your beneficiaries look like for the first 90 days after you’re gone. Who should they be working with? (Have they met before?) What things do they have to address immediately (Maslow’s hierarchy – house payments, healthcare, monthly bills, utilities, etc?) What do they have time to manage? I guarantee that if every person who reads this were to think of the first 90 days after they’re gone, and what their family has to address, the way we think about estate planning would change dramatically.
Perhaps the thing that gets left the furthest behind here is your interaction with the professionals managing your estate. Make sure your spouse and your beneficiaries know who those people are — humanize those relationships. Also, make sure you’ve worked with those professionals on their role in the estate during that first 90 days. If you don’t outline it upfront, your family will be taken for a ride. My father’s estate attorney was — terrible. The offensive way we were treated from the moment my father died up until this very moment is something to learn from. My advice to you is establish terms upfront. It’s amazing where and how people will try to make a dollar these days.
Lesson #3: It’s easier to remove someone from an account, than it is to add them.
Whatever can be joint, make joint. Whatever can have a beneficiary, designate two generations deep (spouse, children). It’s easier to remove someone from an account then it is to add them after the fact. If you have anything in one persons name, fix it. Either make the account joint (ideal, but there are tax considerations), designate a beneficiary, or designate someone clearly as the recipient and owner (will). Every. Single Account.
Lesson #4: Consolidate. Accounts. How you log in (usernames, not passwords). Where you receive statements. Where you store account information. And where all physical documents need to be.
I’m all for complex passwords; but keep your confirmations and registrations and logins from one email address. These provide a paper trail that make it easy to catch the things that slip through the cracks. Once a year spend an hour or so making sure all of your accounts are coming into one email address to help whoever gets access to your phone or laptop know how to find what they’re missing.
Lesson # 5: Try and avoid hierarchies.
Unless there are clear family dynamics at play, my recommendation is to avoid a hierarchical structure to the will. Instead of requiring certain people to take up work or relinquish rights, focus on “or” scenarios where rights can be easily transferred between people without requirement. For us, my Mumma and my Sis were designated as actors on the will before me: but I was the one who was going to do the work; things were delayed 2 weeks at least simply because we had to get the rights relinquished before I could do anything on our behalf.
It’s hard to give specific advice, but the spirit of the advice above should be helpful as a framework.
A Note to the Spouse
If you’re married to a person with the things, make sure you’ve thought about all I’ve outlined above. You have twice the responsibility: because you’re the person, and then you’re also a spouse of a person. For you, all of the above apply, plus…
Lesson #1: Everything is important. Not everything is urgent.
It’s incredible how helpful the state has been, the government has been, the financial institutions have been, the utilities have been. I once believed that the world loved no human being more than a pregnant women. Really. The world bends over backwards for a pregnant woman (as it should). I was happy to see that the world appears to do the same for a grieving family. You will not catch everything and trying to do so before it happens is not worth the stress. Do your best and as new things make their way to you as they inevitably will, don’t stress — simply share the truth.
Lesson #2: Be honest about the role you will want to play.
This is the single most traumatic and life changing moment you will experience. There are very few people who will be able to make visits to banks and attorneys within the first month, if even after that. Make sure that the appropriate people in your life are around and designated to help with the administrative parts of the estate in the short-term while you get your bearings.
Lesson #3: Gain visibility.
Statements. Accounts. Assets. Titles. Anything. Make it a point to understand what is happening on a quarterly basis. Just make it a point and don’t settle for anything less.
Lesson #4: Define the plan.
As important as it is for the individual to define the first 90 days, it is equally important for you to think through those firs 90 days. Scenario plan. What are you ready for? What aren’t you ready for? Even a 20-30 minute exercise of thinking through what will happen in that environment will carry you far. If it helps, think less in terms of what happens when someone dies, and more in terms of: “what did I do the last 90 days, and what are the things that are being done for me?”
A Note to the Beneficiary
If you are a beneficiary, you may be in position to have the most work of anyone — you could be the individual in one case, the spouse in another, and, the beneficiary in yet another.
All of the above applies to you. But you have a few added steps to take.
Lesson #1: Be ready.
If your parents travel overseas, have your passport and VISA, ready. It’s simple. Do it.
Lesson #2: Double check your work.
If you know you’re going to be doing the work, you should be asking questions before it’s time for the work to be done. Make it your priority ahead of time as it will be your priority at some point in the future.
Lesson #3: Order your priorities, and acknowledge this will all take time.
Work your way through the urgent items according to Maslow. Acknowledge that new things will come up that were unexpected. And maintain your wits about you. Don’t change anything until you absolutely need. to. Don’t notify anyone until you absolutely need to. Give yourself the space to operate. It will make a difference.
Just My $.02
These are my thoughts and some of what I’ve experienced. Daddy was incredibly well organized but he couldn’t have planned for some of the things that happened even on his best day (being in India, selling an investment property the day before he died, having an attorney who was more focused on the next dollar than actually being of service.)
Note: I wrote a bunch of posts about my Daddy’s death that some have found helpful; either as they’ve gone through their own experiences, or, as they’ve had to find ways to support others. You can find all those posts organized here.