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When Death Do You Part – Is Your Family Prepared?

Death Elementary mexicoHere’s a morbid topic to greet you on a Monday morning. Dealing and thinking about our own death is something that we shun, with a vengeance! Wills and similar items related to our own mortality are many times ignored, at times to the survivor’s detriment.
But this post is not about wills, it’s about all of the little things you own and do on a daily basis that your family doesn’t have much insight into. It’s also about the important documents that they might need access too should you suffer an untimely death. Let me give you a little background as to what got me started on this train of thought.

I recently posted an article on visiting my parents last February. I went there to help my parents with finances as well as other matters that need attention. Unfortunately, they are at an age where paying the bills, taxes and responding to inquiries from insurance companies and local governments escape them. You can read more about my visit here Estate Planning – Our Return From Miami

 One task on my list was collecting and safeguarding important documents. Having access to these documents was critical if I were to take responsibility for their well being   I made major headway in that area. I found many of the important documents that will help us make sure everything is on track for my parents. I still haven’t found everything that we need, but there will be other visits and in time, we’ll get all of the documents we need.

There was one thought that I couldn’t get out of my head as I was searched through their documents. If the worse happened, and Mr. Death came to visit me tomorrow, would my family be able to find and deal with my financial accounts? What about my social accounts or important documents? What of the items I have in the safe? Can they even get into the safe?

The reality is that I have not prepared them. My list of accounts is scattered, important papers are filed but would take a significant effort to identify and find. The list, although not endless, is pretty extensive. If death visited me tomorrow, my family would probably want to kill me after dealing with the mess I left them. I decided to dedicate a post to this topic. I’m sure it’s been done before; as a matter of fact I remember reading the term “death letter” a few months ago. I’ve not gone back to find that post. I want to approach this from a completely fresh perspective.

I would like to add a little twist to it. I’d like to get your thoughts and feedback  I plan to edit this post with the ideas that I get back from you. Consider it a “death post in progress”. With your help, I’d like to put together a comprehensive list of the things your family needs to know. Areas that I really would like to get some feedback will be in Bold Italic. Hopefully, this can be a good reference post to use if you’re preparing for an untimely death.

The Obvious 

Here is a list of the obvious things that your estate or survivors need to know about in case of an untimely death. Untimely! can any death be considered timely? Financial accounts, whether they be savings or brokerage accounts should be included in a document. At the very least you’ll want the Financial Institution, Account name and number. What about your online access to these accounts? I think you should include that as well.  A link to the log in page, log in ID and password should be included for these accounts. Don’t forget your security questions and answers. Although to be honest, I usually can’t remember what in the world I put in as an answer to some of the security questions on my accounts. Here’s a list of the accounts you should include.

  • Savings
  • Money Markets
  • IRA’s
  • 401k’s
  • Brokerage Accounts
  • Mortgage Documents
  • Deeds
  • Credit cards
  • Other loans

The Less Obvious

There other, less obvious, but potentially just as important pieces of information your survivors may need to find. Some of these may seem somewhat ridiculous if death strikes you unexpectedly (sounds like a side effect from a modern drug, doesn’t it?). But there may be legal or other reasons where your estate or survivors may need access to this information. What if you’re divorced and your Ex decides they are entitled to part of the estate? Your divorce decree and separation agreement may be the only defense your heirs have to defend the estate. Similarly, if both you and your spouse are deceased, the pre-nuptial agreement may be the only thing keeping the surviving children (from different marriages) from declaring an all-out death war on each other.

Here are some of the not so obvious items that should be readily available to survivors and heirs:

  • Divorce Papers
  • Pre-nuptial agreements
  • Titles (cars, etc)
  • Deeds
  • Immigration and naturalization documents
  • Tax Records
  • Insurance documents and information
  • Safe Combinations

 The Really NOT Obvious

 Can you imagine passing away and having all of your social and mail accounts staying active? Worse than that, what if they get spammed and your remaining loved ones and friends start getting spammed from your accounts? It’s actually kind of funny in a grim sort of way. I see this image of some of my friends opening an email from me (after-death) wondering if I’m sending them male enhancement advertisements from the afterlife! Here’s a list of some of the items that your heirs should have access to:

  • Social Media
  • Your blog and other websites
  • Email accounts
  • Can you think of any other?

Who Needs This Information?

One mistake that I think we all make when making these kinds of preparation is that we assume our spouse will survive us. But what if that isn’t the case? What happens to all of your information and assets should death strike you both unexpectedly? If you’ve prepared a will, then your executor will carry out the directions given in the will. But will that cover some of the more esoteric things that you’re involved with?

Is there someone in your family you can trust with access to this information?  Think about this carefully. I’m not saying that you should give a third person all of your personal and financial information. But there should be a mechanism for a third person to have access to it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the executor of your will or a close and trusted family member. What does matter is that they get access AND know what to do with it.

 Safeguarding your Information

Here’s the tricky part, there’s a ton of materials that I’ve mentioned as being important. Much, if not all, of this material is sensitive and could be financial and personal ruin if it falls into the wrong hands. How do you safeguard this so that it is both easily accessible yet well protected? Here are a few ideas that I have on how you can do this:

Safe – I think everyone should have a safe. Even a small safe is better than no safe at all. The two things I would look for in a safe are that it is fireproof and that it can be firmly attached to the floor or a wall. All of your important documents should be stored in this safe.

Safety Deposit Box – A safety deposit box is a good place to store important documents as well as other valuables. The one disadvantage is that if you have “dynamic” information (password, etc) on a USB drive, updating that will be a pain in the ass and will most likely get out of date quickly.

USB Drive – A USB drive can be used to store scanned copies of important documents, your online information, the combination to your safe and other items. You can also create an encrypted volume on it that you can keep your sensitive information in. Truecrypt  is an open source program that delivers extremely powerful encryption. I use Truecrypt and can attest that the algorithms it uses are among the most powerful available to the general public.

Online Vaults – There are several online services available where you can keep documents and access information available in a secure virtual vault. Personally I don’t trust any of these services. I am sure they would never criminally use your information. I’m also sure that they are targets for experienced and knowledgeable hackers. The biggest corporations and the Government can’t keep from getting hacked. It’s only a matter of time before these “vaults” get compromised.

Can you think of other ways to safeguard your information yet make it accessible?

There’s one final step you have to think about. How do you give a trusted person the keys to all of this information after you die? There are a few options for you to do this. Here are a few that I think are possibilities.

A lawyer – Preferably the one who has prepared your will. An sealed “Instruction Letter” with the information necessary to access you documents. The letter should have a list of Documents and Combinations or passwords to access them. It should also include instructions on what you desire them to do. to deliver to your executor or the trusted person you have chosen.

An Online Service – Yes, there are online services designed to release information to designated parties after a death. The Digital Beyond  has a comprehensive list of providers of these services.  Although I still don’t trust online services for security reasons, there is a method to help protect your information should the provider should be compromised. Put two items of information in one of these services, the combination to your safe (if you have one) and the key to decrypt the USB drive which is in your safe. Even if the service is hacked, the hackers would have to physically access to your safe to get the rest of your information.

What methods would you use to give your survivors access to your critical information?

Talking about death and writing about it is difficult for many of us. The subject of death is grim, and somewhat depressing. Here’s some insight on just how adverse human nature is to dealing with the topic of death. The concept for this post came to me when I was in Florida one month ago. I meant to write and post this within a week after I got the idea. It’s been a Month. Were there really that many other topics that needed to be written first? Or was my subconscious studiously avoiding the topic of death? What do you think?

This image is from the Cemetery in Isla De Mujeres, Mexico
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John Schmoll is a Dad, husband and veteran of the financial services industry. He's passionate about helping people learn from his mistakes so that they can live lives free from the shackles of debt and empowered to make their money work for them. You can check out his other sites: Frugal Rules, for ways to improve your financial literacy; and Sprout Wealth for tips on different ways to make more money. John has been featured on Forbes, Lifehacker, Yahoo Finance and US News & World Report and more. If you're wanting to grow your blog, check out my blog coaching services to see how I can help you take your site to the next level.

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17 comments

  1. Good post Jose! I have come up with a system that has all of the info needed for anything financial related for my wife or other survivors in the time of my passing. I do need to add all of my social media/email accounts as well. We’ve also added our close friends who’d be custodians of our kids to be signers on our Safety Deposit Box so they can get into it if the both of us were to pass at the same time.

    • John, You’re ahead of me on this topic. I need to get it together and put everything together for survivors if my time should come to an unexpected and abrupt end! This is something that is so easy to procrastinate that it seems I never fond the time to tackle. I’m going to make sure I get this done soon!

    • Good point about adding your friends as signers on your safe deposit box. We have one and a friend knows which bank and where the key is, but she isn’t a signer. I’m not sure how hard it would be to get into otherwise. I bet you’d have to wait for the will.

      • You probably would, worse it may have to go through probate first before a friend can get access to the box. It’s complicated for sure! But still something that deserves attention.

  2. This is a difficult situation for many of us. We would give our financial information, etc. to one of our grown children, picking one that seems to be the most organized and careful with their own finances and documents. My mom worked in a bank and always updated her grown kids once a year with a typed list of where everything was and what to do first if she died. We used to think she was being overly careful, but now we realize she was pretty wise. A good example I need to follow!

    • Your mom was smart and had a lot of fore sight. Dealing with our own mortality is such a difficult thing to do. It’s so much easier to ignore things like this then to take the right actions ahead of time. I need to get my act together and put things in place to protect my heirs. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Great ideas, Jose. Thanks for your insight.

  4. Great post Jose, yea early death; a subject that is often easy to avoid but extremely important. Some great points here, some of which I hadn’t even given consideration to, like the safe combination, credit card logins and social media passwords. Thanks!!

    • Your welcome Jim! It kills me when I see references in my email or on social media sites to users who are no longer with us. I thought that should be one of the things that get tackled. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. It’s strange. Lots of people think this is a difficult topic, but it isn’t for me. Once you become comfortable with the fact that you will die someday, you really have two choices: put this stuff together early or wait until a few minutes before you die (because that’s when you’ll really need it). If you aren’t sure when you’ll die, there’s only ONE choice…

    • Joe, It’s sad fact that most people wait until the last minute before thinking about this. “hey, Honey, the gold is hidden in the arrgghhhh”. seriously though, I’m the worse one for procrastinating on this. One of the reason I wrote this post is to motivate mt to get my sh*t together and get this done.

  6. We know that some day we will die but we don’t really talk more about it after the words life insurance. I don’t think we have considered a will although my wife’s mother has told us we should do one up. These are things that seem so far away yet could happen in an instant. We are not as prepared as we should be and that’s something we need to change especially with safeguarding of information. Great post.

    • Get a will! I’m not sure how the laws work in Canada or it’s provinces but I know that here in NC not having a will can create monstrous problems for the heirs. A close friend of mine died early last year, he did not have a will. Everything he owned from his car to his house became the estate and was locked up for more than a year. His surviving wife just recently had to buy the car from the estate after a year had passed. Even the accounts and Insurance that had her listed as the beneficiary were locked up as there were no clear instructions in the will that they should be carried out. It sounds unbelievable but it’s true and it was painful to see her not only lose her husband but to have to go through so many legal mazes.

  7. I haven’t thought about these things at all! I get uncomfortable thinking about the topic, though I know I’ll have to deal with it eventually. My own parents are not in a good financial situation so I doubt they have any of these items prepared.

  8. I work in a mortuary and have seen firsthand how important all of this is. When families are prepared, it makes a person’s passing so much easier.

    • I have to applaud you, I’m not sure I could work in a mortuary. I bet you see a lot of unprepared families dealing not only with their personal loss but with the additional burden of dealing with the financial mess left behind.

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