You’ve created a will, but does your family know where to find it?
Howard Krooks, a Certified Elder Law Attorney who practices law in Florida and New York, says communication with family members must coincide with the creation of any legal documents—whether you choose a simple will or an irrevocable trust: “If they can’t find them when they need them, you might as well not have them,” he says.
When we think of the end of life, we envision our later years and promptly place planning on the back burner. It’s ironic, because death is a certain event, yet none of us know when or how it will occur. Even prior to our passing, we may experience times of incapacity and limited decision-making ability—a dementia diagnosis, a stroke or heart attack, or a car accident. That’s why in most cases, a clear detailed will is not the greatest gift a person can give to his or her family, per Andrew Oh-Willeke, a Colorado-based attorney.
Establishing an “emergency evacuation plan” is a better place to start. “If you really love your family, you would prioritize doing this,” Krooks says. “People wait too long, the unexpected happens, and you’re ill-prepared for it.”
Be Prepared With a Clear Contingency Plan
Preparedness involves a number of decisions and instructions—all of which must then be communicated to the appropriate individuals. To create your contingency plan, says Krooks, go through your estate step by step from the time of your death.
First, designate a safe place for your legal documents, be it a will, trust, durable power of attorney, advanced directives, or all of the above. Krooks recommends a locked top drawer in an office; a bank-based safe deposit box is not always ideal as it could take weeks or months for a designated personal representative to gain access. Once you’ve established the location, make it known to several family members, particularly your fiduciaries, and provide access to it, i.e. with a spare key or a note listing the safe code.
It’s wise to have an electronic version of all documents too. Per Krooks, most courts will honor a true copy of an original document—submitted with an affidavit—if it can’t be found, or if the original were to get stolen, damaged, or destroyed.
Next, you’ll need to consider your digital assets, i.e. photo libraries, social media/email/app accounts, banking usernames and passwords, and more (Facebook allows you to designate a legacy contact to ensure your account is memorialized appropriately). List these logins, passcodes, and pins in a centralized, secure location and share it on paper or via electronic transmission with your appointed executor(s).
Do you have a burial plot already secured? Funeral arrangements made? Do you want a small wake or a large memorial service? Do you wish to be cremated? Where you wish to be buried is another important facet of planning. “Some people do not want to be buried next to their spouse,” says Krooks. Confirm these details, designate directions for carrying them out, and share them accordingly.
Plans Give Caregivers and Loved Ones Peace of Mind
The tense, wakeful moments by a spouse’s hospital bedside are not ideal for conversations about cremation vs. burial and where the will is stored—or whether there is a will at all. In some cases, communication of any level is impossible.
In times of emergency or even during hospice care when death is looming, caregivers and loved ones should be able to focus on saying goodbye and maximizing whatever amount of time is left. When long-distance relatives arrive and need hotel arrangements and airport pick-ups, caregivers should not be simultaneously scrambling to find a burial plot or funeral home, or tearing up the house in search of banking passwords and safe deposit box keys.
Give your loved ones, and yourself, the gift of preparedness. Think carefully about the pivotal minutes, hours, and days that will follow your death, and take steps today to ensure your loved ones will have the time and emotional space to grieve their loss and remember you as you wished them to, rather than tasking them with impossible decisions and presenting them with an uncertain future.