This is a guest post from Andrea. Andrea lives in the backwoods of northern Virginia with a small menagerie, where she fritters her life away reading, hiking Civil War battlefields, and surfing the internet when the weather allows her primitive satellite connection to stay up. She’s involved in social justice, battlefield preservation, and is foolish enough to try going to school full time while holding down a full time job that requires a 100 mile daily commute. You can catch her blogging this idyllic life over at the Manor of Mixed Blessings (posts there have no redeeming social value).
Back at the end of January, my estranged father passed away intestate (without a will). He was also divorced. This meant that I was his sole heir, and also got saddled with being the executrix of his estate. And let me tell you, I had good reasons for being estranged from the man but prior to his death I didn’t really loathe him. After his death, I most certainly do. Disposing of his estate has been a nightmare of flailing around trying to piece together the financial life of a man I didn’t know, who lived a 12-hour drive west of me, kept every single piece of paper ever in a series of various boxes and drawers, and apparently did not communicate anything to anyone, ever. It is no lie when I say to you that I am contemplating making the 12-hour drive to visit his grave JUST so I can have a dog pee on it.
This has led me to the conclusion that you can handle your estate in one of three ways: you can hire a lawyer to be your executor, you can saddle the person you most dislike in the world with the duty, or you can set things up such that whoever does it does not end up with a burning desire to resurrect you just so they can choke you. It’s the third one I want to tell you about; there’s some very, very basic things you can do that will make life a lot easier for your executor when you’re gone. My advice is necessarily US-centric because I have no experience being an executrix anywhere else in the world.
The first is make a will. In it, specify who you want to be your executor. Get that person’s agreement. I cannot stress this enough. Do not surprise some poor bastard with the news that they will now have to handle disposing of your estate, even if you are the most organized person on the planet. It’s cruel and unusual and no fun for the person you’ve just surprised nastily.
The second is start making lists. You need to make a list of every bank where you have a financial account and every insurance policy you have. This list needs to include the telephone number and address of the institution where the account or policy is located, and the account or policy number. For insurance policies, list the amount of the payout and the beneficiary. Give the beneficiary’s contact information, as well. For financial accounts, if possible keep a copy of the latest account statement with this list.
For that matter, keep all your financial information in one place and organize that crap. It doesn’t have to be complicated, it doesn’t even have to be in alphabetical order, but folders labeled with the names of the banks or companies with any and all correspondence stuck in them will be useful as hell to the person cleaning up after you’re dead.
Make multiple copies of your will and your list. Put a copies in a folder labeled “OPEN WHEN I’M DEAD” or similar and keep it with your financial folders. Consider giving copies to your executor if they’re the kind of person you trust with that information. Take all your folders of financial information, your OPEN WHEN I’M DEAD folder, and put them in a sturdy box. Plastic, for a preference, because it does not decay and fall apart like cardboard and is easier to lift than a fireproof safe. Label the box in large letters “IMPORTANT FINANCIAL INFORMATION” or similar and stick it wherever you like, but tell your executor where to look. Keep these files up to date, particularly that list.
Now sit down and make yourself another list. This one is a list of everyone who sends you a regular bill: phone companies, utility companies, landlord, credit cards, loans, whatever. It should look a lot like your other list, only labeled “BILLS” instead of “WHERE I BURIED THE MONEY”. Give the company/person’s name, their contact information, and your account number. If the bill is a static amount, list the amount. Stick this list in your OPEN WHEN I’M DEAD folder.
If you have an online presence, you may want to make a list with the URLs, account names, and passwords.
Make one last list, finally. Call this one “People Who Will Want To Know I’m Dead”. It’s pretty self-explanatory and should include names and contact information. Put it in your OWID folder and keep it updated as people move, change phones, or ditch one e-mail address for another.
If at all possible, make arrangements to pay for your funeral ahead of time. Your bank accounts will be tied up in probate for months even if things go quite smoothly, so if you haven’t pre-paid for a funeral ask yourself how your family is going to pay for the arrangements you want made. Consider, if you have a terminal illness, adding your executor to your bank account as a joint tenant with rights of survivorship (this is the only thing my dead estranged father did right), which will give them the ability to access that account without having to worry about probate.
Let me tell you how my estranged father’s death went, without all of this. I got the call that he was dead and had to plan his funeral arrangements from some 800 miles east of where he died. Luckily his sister was willing to put the costs of his cremation and memorial service on her credit card. I then packed my husband and puppy in the car and we drove twelve hours west, attended the memorial service, and then had to clean out my dead estranged father’s apartment and try to track down who all needed to know he was dead.
I had exactly 5 days off work, and one Honda CR-V which also had to carry me, my husband, the puppy, and our luggage. Time and space were at a premium. My husband and I moved through that small apartment like a hurricane, looking for any meaningful family artifacts and any important paperwork. We had four 15-gallon or so Tupperware containers we filled up. Because papers were everywhere, we just collected anything and everything and dumped it in the “Paperwork” Tupperware bin. Family oddments I actually wanted went in the other three.
And then, because I was fortunate, I was able to hire a lawyer who had everything left in the apartment taken care of, including the motorscooter. Meanwhile the husband, the puppy, and I drove twelve hours home where I started digging through the paperwork so I could tell the lawyer what the estate consisted of, financially. I called, I am not shitting you, three different retirement programs plus the Social Security Administration. I called the phone company. I dug through my dead estranged father’s personal mail and tracked down his regular correspondents and notified them. I provided what I believed to be a complete list of assets to the lawyer, and he got an order to dispense with administration of the estate, and then two months later one of the retirement programs sends me a letter to tell me there’s $36,000 in assets with them that they need to distribute but they won’t so much as tell me who the beneficiary is without a copy of the order to dispense with administration specifically listing those assets. Which I do not have, because when I called them and informed them of my estrange father’s death, they said nothing about these assets. Helpful. Very helpful.
At this point my estranged father has taken up significantly more of my time and energy dead than he ever did alive, and the whole process strikes me as a perfect example of the kind of self-centered assholery that made me decide I was better off without him in my life. I regret, at this point, allowing his ashes to be buried rather than taking custody of them so I could use them as litter box filler. Do not be my dead estranged father. Your heirs may be more on the ball than I am and you may spend eternity soaking up cat urine. Sit down, and start making some lists.