While I was busy raising my children, I was hit with the loss of three loved ones that changed my life and enlarged my focus. I moved from just keeping a journal and updating scrapbooks to realizing how important it was to not just record my feelings or events, but getting down to the nitty gritty of understanding all of the documents that play such an important part in every family.
My father passed away suddenly at the young age of 51; he had a heart attack with absolutely no warning. He was alive when I started cooking breakfast and had died before I cleaned the dishes off the table. It took a full day to pull the family together from different states and then we only had two days to plan the funeral. He had done nothing to plan for his death, and if it hadn’t been for a kind uncle with an extra grave site, I don’t know what we would have done. Our father had no siblings, so there was really no one else in the family to help. We had to figure it out as we went along.
Within the next ten years, both of our father’s parents passed away. They had pre-planned their funerals years before and I remember even as a child when we drove by the cemetery they would say, “That’s where we’re going to be buried. We bought lots close to the road so we can hear the traffic.” Then they’d laugh. We thought they were kind of silly about it, but Grandpa had been a traveling salesman most of his life and the two of them loved to travel, so it seemed fitting that they wanted to be close to the road, even in death. Because of the healthy attitude they had toward their own deaths, we were able to use their funerals as a celebration of life, and the fact that they had pre-arranged their own funerals allowed us to grieve without the additional burden of trying to figure out what they would have wanted us to do.
You’d think that after seeing the difference it made to have arrangements made, I would start thinking about putting my own affairs in order. Still, I didn’t do anything until I read a story about a young mother whose husband was killed by a drunk driver while taking their children to school. Her story hit me like a ton of bricks. This woman’s story made me wake up and take action. I moved through my files like a woman on a mission and didn’t stop until I felt like I had everything.
I was the financial partner in my marriage, managing the checkbook, paying the bills, handling insurance, and any other paperwork that came through our house. My husband was busy with his career, and glad to stay out of my way! I knew if I were going to protect him and my children, I would need to document everything in detail.
I started working on this in 1989, so there are options available to you today that I didn’t have. I have updated the process and hope these ideas will just as helpful to you now.
1. Gather your information. For some this is as simple as pulling the files from a cabinet. For others, it might mean going through boxes and drawers to find documents that have been thoughtlessly stashed throughout your house.
2. Review the documents to make sure they are still active and say what you want. Visit with your attorney, your life insurance agent, or your financial advisor if necessary.
3. Keep your documents in a fireproof safe at home, and not in a safe deposit box. You want to be able to access the information when you need it, and the bank isn‘t open 24/7. Besides that, unless you are a signer and have access to the safe deposit box, you won’t be able to get close to it.
4. Back in the day, I would have recommended that you write the information in pencil because it needs to be reviewed and updated regularly. Today, I suggest typing the information into a document on your computer. That makes it so much easier to review and make necessary changes. www.emersonpublications.com has a great tool to walk you through the process.
5. Scan the documents and save the files to a flash drive. You just never know when you might need to access them. A flash drive is easy to carry in your pocket or purse. You might even consider emailing the documents to yourself.
6. Tell a trustworthy family member or friend where this information is located! I have the original documents in page protectors inside a 3-ring binder. That binder is in my home inside a fireproof safe.
7. Tell your family what you’ve done and schedule a time to sit down and review it with them. This is a great opportunity to gather your loved ones together and explain what you want and why. If you’re an organ donor, tell them why you feel strongly about it. If there are special pieces of china or artwork, now is the time to tell them how you want them distributed. Writing it down will alleviate problems when they have to divide your belongings later.
8. Put a note on your calendar to review it frequently. At the very least, look at it each year when you’re working on taxes. Did you change banks? Do you have a new credit card? Was there a divorce? A death? Did beneficiaries change? This is all very important to have correctly.
Over 90% of survivors are not fully prepared for an untimely death. If you are fortunate enough to have some direction from the deceased, there is less chance that you will be taken advantage of by those who prey upon the survivors. This extends beyond the funeral home and cemetery to those who may have ideas for how you should spend or invest your inheritance.
The majority of people haven’t gone through any process at all to record their information. They may have pre-planned their funeral, but not recorded insurance details, or even given instruction on how their spouse could obtain the funds to continue their current lifestyle if their income were to end. Let's assume they think it will be a wonderful surprise for their spouse to learn about an unknown life insurance policy. The very sad fact is that an estimated 25% of all life insurance policies go unclaimed because the beneficiary is unaware that the policy ever existed. So, don’t keep any secrets. Let your spouse, or a trustworthy child, know what you have and where to find it.
It’s Not Just Important “In Case of Death” Anymore
When I first started working on this, my primary purpose was to help my family in the event of my own death. Over the years, I’ve realized that it’s much more important than that, and even a tool that I can use frequently through the year. (Think about filling out applications for credit and having all of your information right there in one place!) This is something that should be included in every Bug Out Bag or 72-Hour Kit! It will be so important for you to have insurance information and proof of ownership in either trying to get back on your property, or filing a claim for the loss.
Why Don’t We Prepare?
Here are two main reasons we don’t prepare:
(1) We are convinced that we’re invincible. Other people may die, but we won’t. My dad was one of those who lived in denial. He was going to defy the odds and live forever. Instead, it had to be as big of a shock to him as it was to us when he died suddenly at a relatively young age.
(2) Disasters happen to other people, but not us! If you watch the news, the media will gladly provide depressing stories of deaths, murders, and disasters. Just because it hasn’t happened in your neighborhood doesn’t mean that it can’t. It’s just a matter of time.
We have just got to get out of this State of Denial. If you’re not the one who handles the paperwork in your home, then it’s time you started asking some questions, because you may be the one who needs it the most. None of us are immune to tragedy. If you wait until you hear the sirens blowing, it will be too late.
Joyce Moseley Pierce is the creator of “All They’ll Need to Know,” and former radio host on the Preparedness Radio Network. She’s a contributing author to the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series, and the author of “Saving Nikki.”
Submitted to Prepared Magazine on 9/6/13