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Divorce and Family Law
Business and Real Estate
Personal Injury and Accidents
Robert S. Duxstad
Daniel P. Bestul
Lance A. McNaughton

Easing Grief: Simple But Important Steps Can Help Soften Death's Blow

Posted: 5.30.2019  |  Author: 

The death of a family member or loved one, especially one that is sudden and unexpected, can elicit a profoundly emotional response among those who survive.  The days following the death see a combination of shock, sadness, laughter and tears.Ideally, family and friends can gather in common support, share stories, and, together, begin the long grieving process.  Simultaneously, however, those closest to the decedent have to bear the more technical side of death: planning a visitation, funeral and burial, locating a will, and opening an estate.  I’ve witnessed this process twice over the past two months.  One was an exceptionally organized estate that allowed for quick and relatively easy administration.  The second, unfortunately, will involve a longer process slowed by disorganization and uncertainty.  Differences between the two offer a stark reminder of some important steps everyone can take to make this tumultuous period as easy as possible on those we leave behind.


I’ve talked before about the importance of drafting a will and other related estate planning documents.  But those documents only give us direction as to how property should be managed and distributed after death.  Typically, they do not give us a full understanding of what it is we need to distribute, where that property is located, or what debts or obligations must be honored.  Nor do they inform us how the individual wanted to be celebrated: whether a religious ceremony should be eschewed in favor of a less formal celebration of life, for example, or whether cremation is preferred over burial.  No one likes to ponder these decisions while they live.  No one likes to ponder their own death, in general.  But leaving those decisions to others, after your death, is particularly unfair.  To their natural grief, you add fear that they’ve failed to remember an important task, locate a valuable asset, or appropriately respect your wishes as to ceremony or burial.


Thankfully, there are easy steps you can take to ensure that your family or loved ones have as easy a task as possible in the wake of your death.  Consider these, in particular:


     1.  Organize all your important documents in a single location that’s know to your loved ones.  In your home, that might be a file cabinet (in a well-marked file), a lock box or a fire-proof safe.  If items are kept in a bank’s safe deposit box, which we recognize as the most secure option, it helps to name your intended personal representative on the box so that access is quick and simple.  In all cases, be sure your survivors know where the key is located; when a key cannot be found, drilling a safe deposit box for access can take over a week and run hundreds of dollars.


     2.  Include among those documents a frequently updated list of all financial accounts, including checking and savings accounts, IRA or 401(k) accounts, mutual funds, certificates of deposit, and insurance policies.  Identify each account by its assigned number and state whether any beneficiary is named under the account.Ideally, provide updated account balances, and contact information related to those accounts; i.e., bank names and addresses, or telephone numbers for insurance companies or financial advisors.  This information is especially important if you’ve done business at more than one bank – a fact that may be unknown to your survivors if you’ve been a loyal customer at one of those banks throughout your life.


     3.  Also, among those documents include a list of motor and recreational vehicles titled in your name, certificates of title, and names and contact information related to active auto insurance policies.  Provide the same information for home owner policies if you own your home or a seasonal vacation home.


     4.  If you’ve been a collector of a particular item, like Hummel figurines, John Deere memorabilia, or baseball cards, provide an estimate as to the collection’s value or a resource that will help your survivors determine that value.  Even if they keep the collection intact, a value will be essential for estate administration and tax purposes.  Or, if the collection is placed for sale, your help can ensure the best possible selling price and eliminate the possibility that your careful assemblage goes to waste.


     5.  If you have online accounts on sites like E-Bay or Amazon, or automatically renewing online services like Apple Music, Sirius XM, or Spotify, include your user names and passwords, so accounts can be closed and online services terminated.


    6.  Finally, be clear about your wishes when it comes to your funeral and burial.  Wisconsin’s Authorization for Final Distribution form allows you to designate an individual who will handle those decisions and to describe the type of ceremony and disposition you prefer.  Better yet, have this discussion with your children or friends.  It doesn’t have to be a depressing talk or one of great detail.  Making clear your general preferences, though, can go a long way toward making their job easier.  Finally, some prefer to pre-plan or even pre-purchase their funeral through a funeral home of choice, which provides the greatest clarity as to their wishes.


 Ironically, each of the steps can help you during your lifetime.  Financial matters and estate planning documents should be reviewed regularly to ensure effectiveness; hobby collections should be regularly valued for insurance purposes; passwords can be forgotten if not written and stored safely; and, pre-purchasing a funeral is an effective way of protecting assets against the cost of long-term nursing care.  If contemplating death is too much to handle, then approach these steps as effective ways to manage property and finances during your life.  Without even thinking about it, you’ll simultaneously spare your family and friends unnecessary stress, frustration, and even anger, in the wake of your death, and allow them to grieve their loss in a healthy and meaningful way.


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