Have You Written “the Letter”?
Death. It’s a topic that we often avoid talking about and a life event that can be extremely difficult to endure when we lose a loved one. But “death is also disruptive.” A priest shared these words of counsel with one of our professionals following her loss of a close relative; the priest’s poignant words succinctly sum up the often-confusing and hectic time associated with wrapping up the affairs of a person who has passed.
While our clients are often well prepared for life’s eventuality in terms of estate and financial planning, we have noticed that basic information about a deceased’s affairs is often not readily available or is out of date. The first step toward lessening the tedium and stress of contacting credit card companies, financial service firms, attorneys and accountants is simply to have the deceased’s up-to-date contact list and access information. We call this “the letter,” which is a less-jarring way of saying the basic instructions on what needs to be taken care of after we die, and how to take care of it. This letter is not meant to replace proper estate planning; it merely smooths the process for loved ones at an emotional and potentially traumatic time.
Based on our decades of experience helping clients deal with the aftermath of a loved one’s death, we have developed a list of items to cover in the letter. Below are five common items for your consideration.
1. Burial, cremation, elaborate funeral or simple remembrance?
While you may have mentioned to a loved one what you desire for your remains, and may have included disposition of remains in your estate plan, this topic often starts an argument among heirs. By specifically communicating your desires with respect to your final resting place, you will put to rest (pardon the pun) any disagreements between your heirs on the topic.
Spell them out in detail if you’d like. We’ve seen clients plan their own funerals right down to the music and what they would like read, by whom. Your family will be happy you made these decisions for them, so that it’s easier to abide by your wishes.
2. Whom to call?
List the names, phone numbers and email addresses of key contacts. The person reading the letter may not be familiar with your trusted advisors, so make sure the reader has the contact information for your attorney, accountant, financial advisors, work contacts, etc.
3. Where is the will, trust, deed, vehicle title, etc.?
Make sure you list the location of important documents, such as estate plans, deeds and titles. If they are in a safe deposit box, note the location of the box and the key. If they are held in a safe, provide the location and include the combination.
4. What are the financial accounts?
The list can be long, but an accurate and up-to-date list of financial accounts (account numbers, titles, financial institution and contacts) for all brokerage, bank, insurance, credit card and mortgage accounts will simplify the data collection required after your passing. It will also reduce the time your personal representative/successor trustee spends “on hold” with these institutions.
5. Where are the digital accounts?
Your digital life is now an asset (and yes, for some it can be a liability). Be sure that you inventory every one of your digital accounts, including but not limited to Facebook, Instagram and any monthly subscription services, such as music streaming and online magazines. Other online accounts that are linked to your financial and personal information, such as Amazon, Uber, etc., should also be duly noted. If you don’t want to update the letter every time a password changes, which seems like it’s every 30 or 60 days, you can use any number of applications to help track your passwords and logins. Several applications recommended by our Information Technology team are KeePass, LastPass and 1Password, but use the one you’re most comfortable with. You will want to include in the letter how to access any application you choose. Of course, the most secure way to keep track of logins and passwords is to keep a paper inventory in a safe (or other secure spot) and update it as required.
Obviously, given the highly confidential information within the letter, be careful regarding who is allowed to view its contents. You should only provide access to a limited number of trusted individuals. It's important to remember that this letter is a living document. Information in it will change based on changes in your life. Consequently, while many have written a letter of this kind to a family member who has put it in a safe and promptly forgot about it, it’s important that the document be regularly updated.
While death is indeed disruptive, being well prepared is a gift you can give to those tasked with wrapping up your estate. If you are named as an executor, personal representative or successor trustee, you may want to make sure you receive a copy of the letter to help facilitate the process.
This information is for educational purposes and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied upon for, accounting, legal, tax, insurance, or investment advice. This does not constitute an offer to provide any services, nor a solicitation to purchase securities. The contents are not intended to be advice tailored to any particular person or situation. We believe the information provided is accurate and reliable, but do not warrant it as to completeness or accuracy. This information may include opinions or forecasts, including investment strategies and economic and market conditions; however, there is no guarantee that such opinions or forecasts will prove to be correct, and they also may change without notice. We encourage you to speak with a qualified professional regarding your scenario and the then-current applicable laws and rules.
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