What if you died yesterday?
More than 7,500 people died in the United States yesterday and what if you had been one of them? Put the emotions aside for a moment. Forget the spiritual and religious implications of dying; that’s for a different conversation. Focus instead on what you’ve left behind. Your stuff has no feelings, but the people who are left to deal with your belongings do.
While your beneficiaries may wish you had completed your estate planning when you were alive, most likely that is not what happened. According to a 2020 caring.com study conducted in partnership with YouGov, less than half (47.9%) of people ages 55 and older have any estate planning documents, including a will. If you are younger, the numbers are worse: only 27.2% of those age 35-54 and 16.4% of people age 18-34 have estate planning documents today.
Why You Didn’t Write A Will
The most common reasons you didn’t write a will are: you didn’t get around to it (35.7%); you didn’t think you had enough assets to leave to anyone (30.4%); you thought it was too expensive to set up (6.8%); or you didn’t know how (6.3%).
I wonder if there is another reason too. Maybe you were afraid of death and were intentionally avoiding the process; maybe you are not close with your relatives and didn’t know who should get your stuff. Whatever the reason, it’s too late now. Let’s see what happened.
The Hard Way: “Melissa’s” Mom
If you were Melissa’s mom, you died without a will. You were the organizer of the household, paid the bills, invested and made all the medical appointments for you and your husband. You kept track of all the passwords and accounts in your head. You had been meaning to call an estate attorney, but you’ve been busy with work, volunteer activities, and planning Melissa’s wedding.
You died suddenly. You weren’t feeling well for a few days after returning from a cross-country trip. You flew home on Friday from Los Angeles, and you were dead on Tuesday from a blood clot that caused a pulmonary embolism. You were only 56 and thought you had more time.
Your husband, “Jack,” called 911. The police and ambulance came. Jack called your daughter, Melissa. He was too distraught to make decisions.
Melissa asked Jack if you have a list of emergency contacts anywhere. Who else should be called? Your best friend, Colleen? Your doctor? Your office? Your attorney? Your financial adviser?
Did you make a list somewhere? Jack tried to get into your phone, but it was locked. What was your passcode? As a last resort, he held your cold hand up to your phone and used your thumbprint to open it up.
Jack called your office. Your boss said, “Jack, I’m so sorry. If there is anything I can do…” “Thanks” was all Jack could manage in reply.
Your body was taken to the morgue for an autopsy, and the coroner declared your cause of death. The hospital wanted Jack to give permission to release your body to a funeral home. Which funeral home did he want to use? None, Jack thought. He didn’t want any of this and he was frozen with indecision.
Today, your daughter does a Google search, but there are five choices for funeral homes nearby. They all seem fine. She asks the hospital social worker for a recommendation.
Melissa thought you wanted to be cremated. She remembered having a conversation about it with you, but Jack speaks up about this one issue. He insists on a cemetery plot. You would have been fine either way, but lack of communication causes an argument between Jack and Melissa in front of the funeral home director. Melissa felt confused because her dad had been asking her to make so many decisions, she assumed this was her decision too.
Jack has resumed his silence, only nodding or shrugging in response to Melissa’s questions. Melissa struggles with decisions to make. Where to bury you, what kind of coffin, gravestone, flowers, music, and readings at the funeral. Melissa’s fiancé offers to be one pallbearer, but she needs five more. She’s unsure if her dad is up to the task.
“How do you want to pay for this?” the funeral director asks.
Melissa looks over at her dad. He is looking out the window; she’s not even sure he is listening.
“How much?” Melissa asks.
The median cost of a funeral is $9,135 with a vault or $7,640 without a vault, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.
“Do you take credit card?” Melissa asks. She assumes her dad will pay her back, but she will wind up using her wedding money to pay for your funeral.
Melissa goes through your clothes and picks out an outfit. She cries, wishing she could ask you these things. Wondering what jewelry you want to wear, thinking about all the things you will miss. Her grief is compounded by the unanswered questions.
Melissa stays up late writing your obituary. Tomorrow, she will want to stay in bed. She will feel mentally and physically exhausted, but she won’t let herself rest long; there is too much to do. She will feel like she is letting you down, but also angry at you for not planning ahead. Then she will feel guilty for having angry thoughts about you.
Melissa will take the next six weeks off work to take care of Jack. She will cook, clean, and do the laundry. Jack will ignore the mail that piles up until the bill collectors start to call. Jack and Melissa will need help with the finances. Where is all the money? You and Jack shared a joint bank account, but what about your credit cards and your investment accounts? Some things, like the phone, he will give up on trying to switch out of your name. Some accounts he will never find.
When Melissa finally goes back to work, she will continue to worry about her father. He will refuse to write a will or even think of his own death. Melissa will fear that his probate process will be harder than yours.
A Better Way: “Catherine’s” Mom
If you were Catherine’s mom, your first estate plan was completed ahead of your husband’s death. After he passed, you started a notebook containing your account numbers and passwords for credit cards, utility bills, insurances, memberships, financials and beneficiary designations. It also had the contact information for your service providers, financial adviser, accountant, attorney, doctors, funeral parlor and friends to call when you died.
You even included details about where to get death certificates and how many. When your daughters came to visit, you asked if they wanted any of your possessions, then made an entry in the notebook. Your daughters will call it a roadmap and refer to it many times.
You gave each of your three daughters responsibilities over your estate. “Abby” was appointed Power of Attorney. She lived in the same town and managed your bills and finances as you got sick. She will continue to make sure the bills are paid until the estate is settled. Another daughter, “Becca,” was your health care proxy. She knew you did not want extraordinary measures taken to extend your life. That made the emotional decision to let you die much easier. She is now responsible for managing your funeral arrangements. The third daughter, “Catherine,” you appointed executrix. It is her responsibility for distributing your property, car, household goods and cleaning out your home.
Your three girls will work well together over the next few months. They will create a spreadsheet to keep track of what needs to be done, by what deadline, and who will be responsible. Having the notebook will serve as a reference manual time and again. It will mitigate disagreements since there will be no surprises and no hurt feelings.
Inside your notebook, you tucked a personal letter to each of your daughters. They will cherish those last loving thoughts from you more than any of the stuff you left behind.
In the years to come, your legacy will inspire each of your daughters to write a will, but also keep their own notebooks with details of all their accounts, where to find forms and documents, and specific instructions for those expected to manage whatever they eventually leave behind.
Hopefully, you have prepared like Catherine’s mom. If so, have a conversation with a friend or sibling. Chances are that he or she has yet to write a will. If your estate plan is incomplete, you still have time. Like Ebenezer Scrooge awaking on Christmas morning, you haven’t missed your chance. There is still an opportunity to make sure your family does not have to go through what Melissa experienced. The shock of the sudden passing of a loved one is hard enough, but having to manage so many funeral details on top of the grief is brutal.
Start small: get a notebook or binder. Write down one thing you want to happen. That single decision is one fewer choice that your family has to make. If you need help getting started, reach out to a friend, financial professional, or hire an attorney to help.
Your family will appreciate this gift of an efficient estate plan more than you will ever know. They will tell their friends and loved ones how grateful they are for your organization and deciding what you wanted in the end. It will be a legacy that your children are likely to repeat before their own demise. Give the gift of dying with a plan.
For nearly three decades, the Hurlow Wealth Management Group team has assisted clients in Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana, through complex estate planning issues. Working together with their attorneys, we help our clients find clarity, feel confident, and achieve the comfort that their final wishes will be carried out after they pass on. To ensure that your financial plan aligns with your estate plan, schedule a free consultation today.
 QuickStats: Average Daily Number of Deaths, by Month — United States, 2017. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2019;68:593. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6826a5
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