Have You Written "the Letter"?
Last Updated: July 17, 2019
Death. It’s a topic about which we often avoid talking and a life event that can be very difficult to go through when we lose a loved one. But “death is also disruptive.” A priest shared these words of counsel with one of our professionals following her loss of a close relative; they succinctly sum up the often confusing and hectic time associated with wrapping up the affairs of a person who has passed.
While our clients are often well prepared for life’s eventuality in terms of estate and financial planning, we have noticed that basic information about a deceased’s affairs is often not readily available or is out of date. The first step to lessening the tedium of contacting credit card companies, financial service firms, attorneys and accountants is simply to have up-to-date contact and access information on the deceased. We call this “the letter”—basic instructions on what needs to be taken care of and how to take care of it. This letter does not replace proper estate planning, it merely smooths the process for loved ones.
Based on our decades of experience helping our clients deal with the aftermath of a loved one’s death, we have developed a list of items to cover in “the letter”.
Burial, cremation, elaborate funeral or simple remembrance?
While you may have mentioned to a loved one your desires for your remains and may have included disposition of remains in your estate plan, this topic often starts a fight among heirs. By specifically communicating your desires with respect to your final resting place, you will put to rest (pardon the pun) any disagreements between your heirs on the topic. Spell them out in detail if you’d like. We’ve seen clients plan their own funerals down to the music and what they would like read, by whom. Your family will be happy you made these decisions for them.
Whom to call?
List the names, phone numbers and email addresses of key contacts. The person reading the letter may not be familiar with your trusted advisors, so make sure the reader has the contact information for your attorney, accountant, financial advisors, work contacts, etc.
Where is the will, trust, deed, auto title, etc.?
Make sure you list the location of important documents, such as estate plans, deeds, and titles. If they are in a safe deposit box, note the location of the box and the key. If they are in a safe, make sure to include the combination.
What are the financial accounts?
The list can be long, but an accurate and up-to-date list of financial accounts (account numbers, titles, financial institution, and contacts) for all brokerage, bank, insurance, credit card, and mortgage accounts will simplify the data collection required after your passing. It will also reduce the time your personal representative/successor trustee spends on hold with these institutions.
Where are the digital accounts?
Your digital life is now an asset (and yes, for some, it can be a liability). Make sure you inventory every one of your digital accounts, including Facebook, Instagram, and any monthly subscription services such as music streaming and online magazines. If you don’t want to update “the letter” every time a password changes, which seems like it’s every 30 or 60 days, you can use any number of applications to help track your passwords and logins. Several applications recommended by SBH’s Information Technology team are KeePass, LastPass and 1Password. You will want to include in the letter how to access any application you choose. Of course, the most secure way to keep track of logins and passwords is to keep a paper inventory in a safe (or other secure spot) and update it as required.
It is important to remember that “the letter” is a living document. Information in it will change based on changes in your life. Consequently, while many have written a letter of this kind to a family member who put it in a safe and promptly forgot about it, it is important that it be regularly updated.
While death is indeed disruptive, being prepared is a gift you can give to those tasked with wrapping up your estate. If you know you are named as an executor, personal representative, or successor trustee, you may want to make sure you get a copy of “the letter”.
The information contained herein is for informational purposes only without regard to any particular reader’s investment objectives, risk tolerances or financial situation and does not constitute investment advice, nor should it.