Preparing for the Worst
There will come a day when it’s too late to get your affairs in order
Let’s get the morbid stuff out of the way. My grandmother recently passed away. She was a special woman, and her family has been missing her. For years, our family gatherings would include a conversation between my father and his mother over what accounts she had, and about what to do with her house and belongings. She would start every thought with, “If I die…”
“If I die, I want an even split between you and your sister,” or “If I die, I want the service at St. James in the morning.”
As she moved into her nineties, she finally heard the irrational humor in her own words. Only at about 93 did she start to say, “When I die…”
Things were peaceful after her passing because of the work she did up front, but also because my father and his sister get along well. As I watched, though, I couldn’t help but think of other families I know that were torn apart when a parent passed away. Sometimes siblings quibble over the silliest of details, especially in the throes of grief. Other times, relationships have been forever ruined.
There are steps we can take in our thirties, forties, and fifties to ensure a smoother transition for our families after we pass. And it’s never too late to start getting things in order, either. If you are reading this or having this read to you and you are in your eighties or nineties, there are things you can do today to help your kids, grandkids, and great grandkids tomorrow.
For the sake of brevity and clarity, let’s leave the financial matters out of this. There are a wealth of resources available to help you establish a trust or set up TOD transfers on IRAs and bank accounts.
Let’s begin with organizing. When my wife’s grandmother passed away, she had already labeled boxes of belongings. On a legal pad page she had legibly written out instructions on who was to get what specific items or boxes. Not only was there no debate about who “should” have any item, there was a palpable feeling of her presence in the room because each person felt they had been thought-of and considered. “Thank you, Grandma,” each grandchild said as they received a prized possession.
Try including “why” each person is getting that particular item. My wife was delighted to learn that the silverware had been set aside for her because it matched a set that she had already inherited from her other grandmother. It was thoughtful, and the whole room shared in a special, fleeting feeling.
Next, as you label and divide the belongings, get rid of things that you do not use and that your family or friends will not want. If you aren’t sure about getting rid of an item, simply ask your descendants if it’s something they would like. You might be pleasantly surprised by the attachment your kids have to your old jewelry or books, but you might also learn that there is no reason to hang on to that couch any longer.
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Now that you have things organized and all the junk has been removed, you should be feeling some relief. It is stressful having all that stuff piling up for years. With a decluttered space and organized belongings that are ready to be shared fairly among your descendants, you might find the extra time and energy to consider any further steps you want to take before the time comes when it is too late.
Try thinking for a moment about a relationship you would like to mend or one that you would like to build. Now that your place is clean and organized, and now that you are feeling no added stress from a never-ending to-do list, try inviting that person over for a cup of coffee. It’s never too late to build or fix a relationship with a special person.
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