If you have ever walked into a dark room that is unfamiliar to you, it is unsettling until you are able to find a light switch, flashlight, or other means of illumination. The fear of running into something and possible injury can be very unsettling. Unfortunately, when a loved one passes away and has not done any written planning, the feeling can be the same as walking into that dark room. In many cases, the feeling is magnified because it involves the emotional devastation of loss at the same time.
At a point in our development, most of us come to realize that we (and our parents, if they are still living) are aging and at some point will no longer be here. Sometimes it is obvious, as when dementia begins to set in or a chronological age is a large number. In other cases, the eventual loss may not be predictable. In all situations, having a plan and information available to those left behind can provide the light necessary to navigate the proverbial darkness that ensues following the death of a loved one. It is not just important to mechanically guide those left behind through certain steps of estate administration, but it is vitally important to help make the grieving process and other psychological impacts manageable.
Image by Elia Pellegrini from Unsplash
We would never expect a guest in our home to go into a dark room without lighting (not only for the guest’s safety but for our own liability). But, using this metaphor, it is estimated that seven out of ten people leave a “dark room” as to how to proceed following their death. Thus, planning and providing instruction through legal and other documents is very important for those we leave behind. Fortunately, with some very simple planning, your loved ones can receive the information they need to make the question of “what do we do now” easier to answer after you are gone.
In my legal practice, over time I have identified several simple steps that should take place to bring “light” to the dark room.
First, get legal documents prepared that tell others what you want and who will be in charge.
Second, prepare a list of nonlegal matters that need to be handled.
Third, tell a trusted person where to look for the information in the first two steps.
Sometimes the third step may not be possible within the circle of family and friends. In that case, I advise clients to establish a professional relationship with a trust officer or attorney.
In my practice, I have set up many estate plans for several circumstances and levels of wealth and age. Not long after I began doing the legal planning for families, I started to notice that an easy way to handle all of the nonlegal information was missing. These items are unique and important to the individual creating the plan. It was not until I lost my mother that I understood the value of this information. I could no longer simply call her up or visit her and ask her a question of where something was located or what to do. I had to do it on my own and figure out what she would have wanted. Fortunately, in my mother’s case, I had a good legal plan prepared that carried out her intent. However, knowing that the end was near, I realized that the legal plan was not quite enough. As a result, we spent time together identifying all of the nonlegal aspects of her life and organized it in a three-ring binder. What I did not know at the time was what a help that binder would be when she passed.
When the day came that she passed, I thought I was prepared since I had done her estate plan and I was an estate planner. What I was not prepared for was the overwhelming sense of loss and emotional pain (despite her passing being expected). When someone is gone, it is final; there just is no more, other than memories and things left behind. The personal emotions were significant enough that it stunted my logical thinking in the first few days as if I was in that dark room. Yes, I knew who was named as executor and trustee and who was receiving the assets with clear legal instructions. But, who should I call first? Should I tell her doctor? Who was her doctor? Who were her friends? Did she have any loans? Where did she bank? Question after question flooded me to the point of becoming frozen. Then, I remembered: Get the binder. I went to the binder and so many of my questions were answered. I was able to develop an immediate plan and work to set many of the nonlegal administrative matters in motion with clear instructions.
During the days following her death, I was busy making arrangements, calling people and closing accounts. However, when night came and the business world took a break, it became very quiet and lonely. It would have been very helpful to me to have access to some relevant reading or resources so that I could effectively plan better for the coming days. In addition, my emotional distress was taking me back to the dark room because I was not clear on all of the steps I needed to take, both professionally and emotionally. If only I had access to materials at my fingertips to remind me about the process and what to plan for in the coming days that went beyond just the technical steps.
Following my grieving process and experience, and wanting to help others, I surmised that others facing a similar loss probably feel the same sense of confusion and despair. So, I tried to envision how I could help people navigate through not only the mechanical aspects of the administration but also provide some narrative guidance to learn and be ready. What type of “flashlight” could I provide so the dark room could be at least partially lit and the process, while still hard, a bit easier?
Over time I developed About Me: Information You Will Need When I have Passed. Not only does it contain the nonlegal information about the individual, but it has narrative chapters on matters such as: the administration process, what is probate, what taxes are involved, what to do if a dispute arises, and coping with loss and grief. There is also a set of resources and a glossary to clarify the terms mentioned.
While my three-ring binder acted like a small flashlight in the dark room, this book would have been a spotlight in that same room. I hope that my experience inspires you to at least begin to plan for what we all know is a certain end. It is said frequently, “failure to plan, is a plan to fail.” Please don’t let that happen to you and your family.