Recently, a close friend’s grandfather died – he was a lovable old guy, the kind of man everyone wants as their grandpa. He always had a joke to tell and never took anything too seriously. After the funeral services, when her family had the chance to catch their breath, she and her mom took on the somber task of going through his will.
“Hello Agent 007 – Your next mission, should you choose to accept it, is to help me complete my final mission. This message will self-destruct as soon as complete.” Confused but unusually relieved, my friend realized her grandpa may no longer be there in body, but through his humor and creativity, he was absolutely there in spirit. He made sure that long after he passed, he’d still put a smile on his granddaughter’s face.
End of life planning doesn’t have to be a morbid affair. Think of it less as a reminder that one day you’ll be gone and more of a way for you to make sure your friends and loved ones will carry your spirit with them always. Death doesn’t have to be taboo – everyone does it. The only mistake is not planning early and often.
Where do I start?
There are a number of websites out there to guide you through the process like AfterSteps and the recently launched (and aptly named) Get Your Sh*t Together, which provides templates for all the essential documents (i.e. will, living will, power of attorney). It’s really never too early to start planning, but there are certain milestones to guide you along the way.
According to founder and CEO of AfterSteps Jessica Bloomgarden, “Generally, most people are encouraged to really start planning once they have children. That’s the first time life insurance and your will…become extremely important. Of course, if you have dependents on you before children (i.e. a spouse, elderly parents, etc.), then you’d want to make similar provisions beforehand.”
If you’re really at a loss for where to begin, here are a few ways to prioritize and start the process.
Mind – Get your priorities and emotions in order
- Determine your beneficiaries. One of the most important steps in the planning process is deciding who you want to benefit when you pass. This is not only for monetary purposes, but it will also help you get in the right mindset. Reminding yourself about your loved ones and how important it is to ensure a stable future for them makes the process that much easier. Think about family members, close friends and/or charities you’d want to provide for in the future. This will help prioritize the process and make it more about relationships than belongings.
- Establish a power of attorney. Naming a power of attorney is vital because you must choose someone you trust with your life (literally). You can designate one person to make financial decisions on your behalf and one for medical decisions. You can also make one person in charge of carrying out all your affairs, but be sure to designate back ups just in case.
- Leave a legacy. Don’t get caught up in the numbers – leaving your memory is just as, if not more, important than leaving your belongings behind. Include a section in your planning packet for pictures, videos, personal letters and anything else to help your loved ones feel your presence, not your absence.
Body – Have your say when you need it most
- Draft a living will. “If you are single, in your 20s, etc., then your first priority is going to be a living will,” says Bloomgarden. If you currently are only responsible for yourself, be sure to outline your medical wishes. Your living will should clearly state your power of attorney and your stance on life support (artificial nutrition/hydration) and terminal illness should you be incapacitated.
- Leave funeral service plans. When my younger brother was 10 years old, he said he wanted to be buried at Disneyland. I’m almost certain this won’t be the case now, let alone in eighty years. Plan early, revise as needed and include it in your living will. Get your plans down in writing now so you don’t end up with a princess themed funeral.
Belongings – Leave your loved ones with security and peace of mind
- Draft a will. If you don’t draft a will, your state’s laws of descent decide who will receive your belongings. More likely than not, the government’s opinions probably won’t directly line up with yours, so writing up your own will is crucial to protecting your estate. The format and standards for a will can vary by state, so be sure to check the mandatory details. While you can include an infinite number of directions in your will, it should absolutely include:
- designated guardian for minor children (if applicable)
- legal guardian for children (if applicable)
- designated executor of your estate
- disposal of personal property (i.e. money, personal belongings, real estate)
- appointment of custodian (in case any beneficiaries are under 21 years old)
- Consider a trust. Trusts can be included in your will, and offer certain benefits like tax breaks and privacy regarding your estate and its disposal. You also have power over how your funds are distributed. For example, you can leave a sum of money to a loved one, but restrict disposal of funds to after they turn 21 or after they graduate from college. Trusts offer a way to have control over your estate even after you pass. Unfortunately, between legal and administrative costs, setting up a trust can be very expensive, so weigh the pros and cons before diving in.
- Get life insurance. Life insurance acts as a financial safety net, saving your loved ones from the risk of overwhelming debt in an already difficult time. The best way to decide how much life insurance you need is to calculate all your expenses. Consider your funeral arrangements, mortgage payments, debts, your children’s future education and overall living expenses. Ensure that your family will be taken care of in case of an emergency, and give them ample time to get back on their feet.
- Review your finances. Life insurance is a great safety net, but you should also plan for further in the future. Review your finances often, and start saving enough money to keep your family afloat for at least six months. Life insurance and 401(k) plans can only be accessed in certain situations, so make sure your family has an alternate source of funds. Figure out your complete budget and expenses for six to eight months and start saving immediately. You’re not only providing a financial back up plan, but also peace of mind in case of any emergency life throws your way.
- List all relevant/important password or account information. It’s important to keep your information private, but trying to hack into your accounts can keep your family from getting the funds or information they need to carry out your wishes. Keep a list of all your important passwords and account information, and update it as necessary. You don’t have to share it with your family now, but when they need the information, making a list will save them months or even years of trouble. Include emails, bank accounts, phones and any other password protected medium you think would be beneficial to your family.
Difficult conversations aren’t usually one’s idea of a good time, but talking about your future plans now means more time to enjoy life instead of fearing the end of it. Bloomgarden suggests one avoid “making the topic taboo to begin with and incorporate it into occasional family discussions long before anyone is sick or nearing their end-of-life.” The American Bar Association also offers a toolkit of conversation starters to get everyone talking.
They say life is short, but it’s the longest thing you do. Everything is about perspective – plan for the future now for security, peace of mind and to remind yourself that every day is a gift.