Documenting important information, securing a will and other estate planning documents, and making funeral arrangements ahead of time are all important steps in end-of-life planning. Also in the mix: organizing financial information and legal documents related to medical care. (Nothing included here constitutes legal advice, but it's all essential for you to consider.)
When you have all your financial and legal papers in order, you simplify matters for your family.
By providing the financial details they may need to submit insurance claims, inquire about survivor benefits or access your accounts, you speed access to your accounts and the process of settling your estate.
By having the proper advance directives in place, you save family members the hardship of guessing what to do in dire medical circumstances. The National Institute on Aging has some good advice when it comes to .
Financial documents to organize
Imagine grieving family members rummaging through your papers, frantic because they don't know where anything is. Now imagine them pulling out a folder from your top desk drawer that includes every little thing they need to make your final arrangements, settle your debts and disperse your assets. One of these things feels much better than the other.
Real estate and other property are physical assets. Nonphysical assets include:
- Bank accounts
- Brokerage accounts
- Retirement accounts
- Life insurance policies
- Prepaid funeral plans
Make a list of all your account numbers, the companies where the accounts reside and the location of corresponding documents for your nonphysical assets.
You should also note where you keep property deeds and titles, as well as the contact information for your bankers, lawyers and financial advisors.
Debts and liabilities
Debt and financial liability doesn't just vanish when you die. Your debt falls to your estate, and probate is the process of getting your bills paid before your assets are distributed. What's more, co-signers and your spouse or partner may inherit your debt.
When planning for the end of life, consider the debts you may owe and what might happen with them:
- Credit cards: Any joint account holder will be responsible or else your executor should pay these bills if the estate has money.
- Mortgages: Whoever inherits your property will either have to continue to make payments or sell the property to pay off the debt.
- Home equity loans: See mortgages.
- Car loans: Whoever inherits your car will need to keep up payments or sell the car to pay off the loan.
- Student loans: Federal student loans and some private student loans are discharged upon your death. If your private loan is not discharged, your executor should pay off the loan if the estate has money. In some cases a co-signer or spouse may be responsible for these loans.
- Money you owe to friends and family: It's just the right thing to do to document the money you owe and have your estate pay it back.
As with your assets, make a list of all your account numbers, the companies where the accounts reside and the location of corresponding documents.
Other information to include
- Tax returns
- Car and homeowners insurance
Legal documents defined
There are many moving parts to being an adult in the modern world. It may be even more complicated than you think, especially when it comes to planning for your family after your death.
Here are a few legal terms to know as you work through the process, which varies from state to state.
Related to your finances
Last will and testament: This document states how you want your property distributed after your death and who will manage that property until its final distribution (an executor).
Power of attorney: Often shortened to POA, this is written authorization for someone to represent you or act on your behalf in private affairs and business or legal matters. You get to state how much authority that person has—it's not necessarily an all-encompassing power.
Trust: This estate planning tool is an efficient way to leave your property to your loved ones. When you move your assets into what is known as a revocable living trust, you retain control of them until you die, when they will be transferred to the trustees without going through probate, which will be the case with assets in a will.
Related to your healthcare
Advance directive: On this form you express the kinds of medical care you do or don't want at the end of your life. Making your preferences known ensures your wishes are honored, reduces conflict among your loved ones and lessens guilt over hard decisions in the most serious of healthcare situations.
DNR/DNI/AND orders: If your heart or breathing stops, what would you like paramedics or physicians to do? If it's anything less than everything, consider these orders.
- DNR stands for "do not resuscitate." In cases of respiratory arrest (breathing stops) or cardiac arrest (heart stops), a DNR means no CPR (chest compressions, cardiac drugs, or breathing tube).
- DNI stands for "do not intubate." In cases of respiratory or cardiac arrest, a DNI means that chest compressions and cardiac drugs may be used, but no breathing tube.
- AND stands for “allow natural death." It's a term some hospitals use instead of DNR.
Guardianship: Just as if you have minor children, you will want to appoint someone to care for the children should you pass away. You might also want to name a guardian to step in to take care of your physical needs and financial affairs should you become unable to take care of yourself.
Healthcare proxy: On this form you designate at least one person to make medical decisions for you if you can’t think or speak for yourself. This designation is also know as a healthcare power of attorney, medical power of attorney, healthcare agent, healthcare surrogate, healthcare representative or healthcare attorney-in-fact.
Living will: See advance directive.
POLST: The acronym stands for physician orders for life-sustaining treatment. This is a medical order written by your doctor stating what treatments you do or don't want if you are near death. A POLST, also known as a MOLST (medical orders for life-sustaining treatment), covers things like CPR, use of breathing machines and if paramedics should take you to a hospital.
The role of a death certificate in your finances
Most financial institutions and government organizations will require a death certificate to close or make changes to your accounts. Your spouse or partner will need a death certificate to claim Social Security or military benefits, as well as life insurance proceeds or funds in certain accounts.
Your Dignity Memorial® provider will initiate the original death certificate, which in most cases needs to be signed by a physician. The certificate then goes to the health department for registration and recording. The original certificate stays at the health department, which issues certified copies to your next of kin.
Your family will need to provide certain information at the funeral arrangement conference in order to get the death certificate process going. Hopefully, you will have recorded these details in your Personal Planning Guide or added them to your planning files. That information includes:
- Your loved one’s full name
- Social Security number
- Date and place of birth
- Address at the time of death
- Marital status and the surviving spouse’s name, if applicable
- Veterans discharge papers (DD-214) if applicable
- Father’s name
- Mother’s full name, including maiden name
- Place of death
- Highest level of education and occupation
Most families find that 10 certified copies of a death certificate are enough to meet banking and other requirements. That's what we typically recommend, though the actual number will depend on the complexity of your estate. The cost per copy varies by county and state, running $6 to $25, depending on your location.
Don't be afraid to ask for help
If this all feels complicated and more than a little overwhelming, you’re not alone. That’s why many families choose one or several professionals to help guide them on their journeys. Start by talking to your physician about advance directives. Look for a trusted local family, estate or elder law attorney to advise you on legal matters. And contact a Dignity Memorial® funeral advisor to make plans in advance.