Managing your completed death documents…

You’ve ticked off the items on your checklist.

You’ve done a happy dance.

And now you have a pile of important papers sitting on your desk. Several are original signed documents. Leaving them there doesn’t seem prudent.

What to do with your documents?

These three principles will help you decide what makes sense.

1  Safety 

Your documents should be stored where they are safe from fire, theft, or simply being misplaced.

2  Accessibility

Your documents should be easily accessed by your executor (as named in your Will), by your Attorney* (as named in your Power of Attorney), by your agent (as named in your Personal Directive, Living Will) and your supporters (as named in your Supported Decision-Making Authorization).  *The use of “attorney” in this context does not mean your lawyer. It refers to the person(s) you have designated to handle your financial affairs when you can’t.

3  Information

All relevant people should have copies and know where the originals are stored. If this involves combinations, passwords or keys, they should have that information too.

Things to think about…

Your Will ~ After you’ve died, the executor needs a working copy to begin wrapping up your affairs. The signed original is required when the application for Letters Probate is made. Where should you store it? Here are some things to consider…

  • The lawyer who drew up your Will may be able to store it for you.
  • A safety deposit box in your bank is another possibility. However, don’t put it there until you check with the bank about conditions under which they can release the will. The law generally requires that a safety deposit box be sealed until probate is granted. Yet the executor needs the original Will to submit with the application to obtain probate, and you don’t want it locked up in a bank where you can’t get it out. Your bank may allow supervised removal of the Will immediately after death. But make sure this is the case before storing it there.
  • The executor may be required to prove he or she is the named person by producing a photocopy of the Will along with photo identification,  Therefore, it’s crucial to make sure that each of your executors has a copy of your Will.
  • You might be able to handle the accessibility issue by registering your executors as co-signers on your safety deposit box. Of course, that could mean they will have access to the box even when you are alive. Best thing is to discuss this idea with your banker, explaining what you are trying to achieve.
  • Wherever you store your Will, provide your executor(s) with a copy—and note at the top where the original is stored. If that is a safety deposit box, also note where the key is kept. If the executor does not have a key, there is a substantial charge to drill open the box.
  • If you keep your Will in a fireproof, non-portable safe at home, make sure more than one family member has the combination or knows where the key is.

Your Power of Attorney ~ Your Power of Attorney document is needed when you are unable to look after your financial affairs. Instead of making photocopies of a single signed original, your lawyer may recommend that you sign an original for each of your attorneys for their convenience in having a signed original with them whenever they go to an institution to act on your behalf. In addition, you need a signed original that you will store in a safe, accessible place.

Distribution…

Signed documents

  1. Anyone named as your representative in a document should have either a copy or an original of it.
  2. If it’s  a photocopy, note on the top where the original is stored and provided access information in a way that keeps it secure—i.e. don’t put the combination to your home safe on the top of the photocopy!
  3. In some cases, a signed original is convenient for your representative to have. This applies to the Power of Attorney, Personal Directive, and Supported Decision-Making Authorization. Ask your lawyer if this is possible for the Power of Attorney. For the other two, make the number of copies you’ll need and have both you and your witness sign all of them.

Unsigned, self-generated documents

Some of the documents I recommend are not required by law but are helpful to your survivors. They include your Paper Trail, Last Wishes Letter, encrypted file of passwords and other sensitive information, and health history.

The principle here s to distribute them so they are not just stored in one place.  This ensures both safety and accessibility.

Access is particularly important because some of the information will be needed immediately after death—your last wishes about disposition of your body, for example, and what sort of funeral arrangements you want or don’t want. Even if you have given your family verbal instructions, it’s best to have it in writing because people remember conversations differently at the best of times, and even more so when under stress.

Review and update …

Divorce doesn't automatically cancel your Will. Marriage does in many places. There are unintended consequences in both cases. The take-away—revise your Will when you experience any major life change.
Major life changes should trigger an update.

  • Divorce  To many people’s surprise, divorce doesn’t automatically cancel your Will. As you might imagine, this can lead to unintended consequences.
  • Marriage On the other hand, marriage automatically revokes your Will in some jurisdictions. When you think about it, this makes sense because, once  married, a person has different obligations. A new Will should be made as soon as possible after marriage. If it isn’t, the person will die without a Will and the estate will be handled under intestacy legislation, which often results in things not happening the way you would have wanted.
  • Your children have married, you have grandchildren This may change your list of beneficiaries and how you want your assets to be distributed.

Schedule a yearly review.

I learned this good habit from my friend Diane, who has mastered the art of staying on top of things and keeping them in order. I’ve taken a page from her book, and am now reviewing my documents at the beginning of each new year.

Sometimes I’ve had very few revisions. But last year I had cataract surgery, switched to a new optometrist, and decided to donate my body to medical education.

The relevant changes have been incorporated into my documents, I’ve put revised copies in my file, and have given a set to each of my kids to replace the previous version. It feels like a big accomplishment!

So… when yours are all distributed, pat yourself on the back and give yourself 17 points for…

Good work!

Tackling your Death Documents

*** Time for this post?  Reading… 3 minutes. Completing documents… unknown and worth every minute. Dancing… as long as you want!

Quick! Do your near and dear know where your mother was born? Or your father’s full name exactly as it is on his birth certificate?

They should…because the funeral home will ask for these details (unless you’ve prearranged your funeral and already given them the information).

Do your kids know if you or your spouse ever received Family Allowances or the Child Tax Credit?

They should know that too…because the government will want the answer when your family applies for the Canada Pension Plan Death Benefit.

Who knew?!!

Not me, until I began getting all my paperwork ducks in a row.

Apparently, funeral homes are required to submit information about your lineage when registering your death with the provincial government. I have no idea why the federal government needs to know about Family Allowance cheques I received half a century ago…and I didn’t ask.

But you can be sure I wrote down the answers to those tricky questions and gave them to my kids.

Here’s a blank copy with space to fill in your answers to questions that might be tricky for others. Click on the thumbnail below for a PDF version or here to download the Word File.

Preventing overwhelm…

We all know there are documents we should have in place before we die—not just one, but about half a dozen. Where to start?!! 

First thing…

Here’s a checklist.

Print it and put a checkmark beside the documents you’ve already completed.

Then

Look at the unchecked items and focus on the one closest to the top. Beside that item, write down the first thing you’ll do to get it underway. Give your yourself a completion date for that first step. Then do it.

If you feel stuck, review my blogs on the various documents.

Cost of a basic will
Wills…getting down to business
Wills…without the mumbo jumbo
Power of Attorney (at the end of this blog)
Personal Directive
Supported Decision-Making
Paper Trail
Last Wishes

Rinse and repeat…

You may find that you have more than one document on the go at the same time because you’re waiting for something—your appointment with the lawyer, a chance to get to your safety deposit box and check on an item in there, an opportunity to discuss your personal directive with your children before arranging to have your signature witnessed, etc.

The key is to keep things moving and tick off items as they are completed. When you check off the last one, do a happy dance!

Snoopy Happy Dance from David Innes on Vimeo.

The Last of your Death Documents

***Time for this post?  Reading…10 minutes. Listening…2 minutes. Implementing…one bit at a time.

I’ve recently written about Wills, Power of Attorney, and Personal Directives. All are essential because they cover differing aspects of managing our affairs before and after death.

These documents are not necessarily quick and easy to make. It would be understandable if you’re feeling that it’s an onerous task to put things in order for your eventual demise!

Sorry! There are three more documents to consider—your Last Wishes Letter, Paper Trail, and a Supported Decision-Making Authorization. These aren’t legally required, but will ease things for you and your family in a variety of ways.

This post gives you the essential information you need to make each of them happen. They don’t all need to be done at once, but after reading this you will have in the back of your mind what is required to get each of them completed when you are ready to do it.

Supported Decision-Making…

Here’s how the Alberta government describes supported decision-making

Even if an adult is capable of making decisions, there may be times when they need someone to help make non-financial decisions. This is called supported decision-making.

A supporter’s help is often needed when the adult is ill, has mild disabilities, doesn’t speak English well, or is facing a complex decision.

A supporter helps communicate the adult’s questions, concerns and decisions by talking to their service providers, who could include doctors, pharmacists, care centres, and employers.

A supporter has the legal authority to access the adult’s personal information like medical records and to help the adult think through decisions.

Click on the image below for a printable version of a supported decision-making form. As you will see, it allows you to appoint up to three people to provide support for you when you need it.

Witnessing the form

This form is a do-it-yourself process but it requires witnessing. The witness does not need to know or approve of what is in the document. He or she is there to simply watch you sign. The instruction sheet the came with my form says the “witness cannot be one of your supporters.” It is also understood that a witness must be the age of majority.

That’s how it is in Alberta, Canada. Elsewhere, you might find something similar. It’s worth checking. This kind of assistance can make your elder-hood easier.

Last Wishes Letter. Why?

Your Will is all business. It ensures distribution of your material possessions and financial assets after you’ve died. But there is no “touchy-feely” quality to it. A Will does not provide any means of specifying how you want your body handled after you’ve left it, who you would like notified of your passing, and how you want to be memorialized.

The solution is for you to create a Last Wishes Letter. This is not a legal document, but rather a means of “speaking” to your family. In fact, you may want to literally speak to them by going over it with them while you’re still alive.

Getting down to it…

The contents of your Last Wishes Letter are entirely up to you. The following guidelines will help you get started.

~~ Your body…

Think about things like funeral, cremation, or body donation? Do you care where the ashes are spread? Open or closed casket? Do you have a preferred funeral home? Have you pre-paid for services? Is there a family burial plot? Do you want your funeral at home? What would that involve?

~~ Memorialization…

Do you envision a large funeral service in a religious building? A memorial service at the funeral home? What music do you want…or not want? Is your community of friends scattered across the country or the world, making either of those options impractical? What are the key facts you’d like included in your obituary? Have you written your own obituary to ensure accuracy of details? Do you want a tree planted in your name? A plaque on a wall at the cemetery where your urn is buried or your ashes scattered? Do you care?

~~ Special items and clarifications…

Taffy & Dolly

Dolly is one of the antiques I will be passing on to my two granddaughters. She was a gift from Santa Claus in the early 1950s. Recently, my sister sent Taffy, same vintage, to live at my house. Taffy is a gift, as long as she stays in my family. However, if my granddaughters don’t want her at inheritance time, Karen has asked that Taffy be returned…a fair and important request.

Why is this important? If Karen’s request is overlooked, that could cause hard feelings which might become irreparable. Most of us can think of examples from our own families where something like this has happened.

So here’s what I did… I printed the above photo on a letter-sized sheet of paper, leaving room around it for notations. I clearly indicated which doll was which, identifying the one that belongs to my sister. Then I wrote the details of our arrangement on the page. I have sent a copy to Karen, gave a copy to both my kids, and put the original page in my death documents file. I think I’ve covered all the bases and left no room for hard feelings!

Most of us have things that we’ve promised to people—a cherished item, a sum of money, forgiveness of a loan, or who knows what else. If you want to make sure things happen as you intended, then put the details in writing and share copies with everyone who should know about it.

~~ A personal message…

What you say, or don’t say, in your Last Wishes Letter is entirely up to you. “Goodbye. I love you. I am so proud of who you’ve become” is enough.

But if you want to say more and don’t know where to start, do a web search for “legacy letters” or “ethical wills.” You’ll find many websites to help you. I particularly like this description by Bill Zimmerman

Every parent or adult should consider passing down to a beloved child a written legacy, or letters, focusing on all the important things which they have learned in their lives. Such legacy letters strengthen that child’s ability to survive in life and deal with all the good and bad things to be experienced in years to come. These legacy letters might include family values, lessons learned, memories, and hopes or dreams for that child. Such legacy notes also convey the wisdom that a parent or relative has acquired and which would be helpful for a child to know.

Legacy letters let you determine how you want to be remembered.

…you can start your own legacy letter by answering three short questions:

  1. How do you want to be remembered?
  2. What’s something you’ve learned from your parents?
  3. What challenges have you overcome?


Click on the image above for a printable template for your Last Wishes Letter with spaces for jotting down some rough notes. When the rough outline is done, you can type it out, handwrite the whole thing, dictate your thoughts onto a video, or format it however you like. And, if you happen to die at the rough-note stage, your family will still have some idea of what you wanted them to know.

Paper Trail…

Like your Will, the Paper Trail is all business. It contains particulars about your legal and financial affairs, including location of documents such as land titles, birth certificate, divorce papers, and anything else that will help your executor more easily wind up your affairs. Your Paper Trail is also a good place to record pertinent health information such as healthcare numbers, where you get prescriptions filled, name of your health practitioners with contact information. This will be helpful for your agent if your Personal Directive must be brought into effect because of a deteriorated mental state.

Click on the image below for a printable fill-in-the-blanks version. To download the Word file of this Paper Trail document, click here.

It has been a lot to take in these past few weeks. You can’t do it all at once. Take a breath and start somewhere, with one small thing…

Please note: Laws vary between provinces, states, and countries. I’m using information from where I live to illustrate principles, but you will need to check the details in your jurisdiction. The Internet is a good place to start.