Finishing Well

The business of dying

I’ll bet you thought this post was about the funeral industry, didn’t you?  Nope.  Maybe that will be a topic for another day if anyone is interested but today I want to talk about taking care of business before you die.

This subject is on my mind as I return home from attending a memorial gathering for a family member who died recently.  Funerals and memorials are not really for the person who died—they are for the survivors.  Those who gather together to come to terms with the fact that someone they love is gone forever.  Like other major events in our lives there needs to be a ritual to mark the beginning of a new reality.  This particular family member lived a very private life.  He left no instructions about his final wishes other than the fact he wanted to be cremated and after that we were in the dark.  Several people at the memorial remarked they wished he had expressed his desires so I asked them if they had prepared their own instructions. 100% of them said no.  Here are their top 3 excuses:

Excuse #1:  “I don’t want to pay an attorney”

Excuse #2:  “I’m not sure what I need” or “I don’t know where to start”

You can throw these excuses right out the window because that’s what this post is about.  The single most important document of all (IMO) is not a legal document at all. It costs nothing yet it is a priceless gift.  So what is it?  A legacy love letter.

A legacy love letter contains all the vital information your family (or the people you’ve entrusted to make decisions for you) will need in the event of your sudden death or incapacitation along with your final instructions all wrapped up in one neat package. Each person’s will be different but here is some universally important information to include:

  • Who are your advisors?  Include the names and contact information for people such as your attorney, financial planner, CPA and/or broker.
  • Where’s the money? Your bank, credit union and brokerage accounts.  Do you have a safe deposit box?  Are there any automatic payments from your bank account?  Note these too.
  • What other assets do you own i.e. real estate, autos, boats, jewelry, coins, individual stocks and bonds etc.?  List these in detail including where they are.
  • Who do you owe? List any notes, mortgages or debts with account numbers.  Also include a list of open credit cards whether you have a balance or not.
  • Does anyone owe you money?
  • Where do you keep important records such as deeds, titles, your will or trust documents, military discharge papers? (These should not be in your safe deposit box!)
  • Income sources. Are you receiving income from annuities, a retirement pension, or Social Security? List these and note if there is a distribution due upon your death.  If you are a veteran, also note if veteran’s benefits will be paid.
  • Do you have life insurance?  Include policy numbers and the name of your agent.
  • Info for the death certificate. Date and place of birth, Social Security number, parent’s names (including your mother’s maiden name) and whether or not you served in the military.
  • Funeral and burial instructions. If you have specific wishes about your funeral, this is the place to express them.
    • Do you want to be buried? If so, where?  (If you have a prepaid burial policy, include it in the insurance section.)
    • If you want to be cremated, note here if you have a pacemaker (the crematorium will ask) and tell what you want done with your ashes. There are some pretty creative options these days.  You can be made into jewelry, be part of a fireworks display, encased in a coral reef—seriously!
    • If you have a funeral, do you want the casket open or closed? Do you have specific people you want to be pallbearers?  A favorite piece of music or a poem you want included?  You’ve written your own obituary? Now is the time to say so.
    • Designated charities for memorials
  • Any special bequests? Provisions for pets?
  • Passwords! Yes I know these change all the time.  That’s why you must review and update this letter annually.  The annual review is also a good time to make sure your insurance beneficiaries are up to date

In addition to your legacy love letter, you should also complete these legal documents in case of your incapacitation:

  • Durable Power of Attorney (for someone to handle your business affairs)
  • Medical Power of Attorney (for someone to be able to make medical decisions for you)
  • Advance Directive (aka Living will)

Regulations for these vary by state but most of these documents are available to download online or can be obtained from hospitals, hospices and other sources free and do not require an attorney.


Tell someone you trust these documents exist and where they are!


I hope you’ll also  include personal notes to the people that mean the most to you or leave an ethical will (see The Gift of a Lifetime).  Imagine what it will mean to the people you love to have your feelings for them expressed in writing—a forever keepsake.

And finally:

Excuse #3:  “I plan to do that when I have time”

This would be a perfectly valid reason for procrastinating if we were talking about wrapping up loose ends before leaving on vacation but unless you know the exact date of your death you can’t afford to wait. For your sake and your family’s sake, make today the day you take care of business. And when you’ve finished, will you please go label that box of photos?