I often work with seniors in putting together estate plans designed to see them through the rest of their lives. Their goals are diverse, and my job is to help them put their affairs in order as they choose. In addition to executing the documents appropriate for that stage of life, however, there are other things seniors can to do ensure the orderly administration of their estates. Customarily, each spouse will name the other as the Personal Representative of their estate, so the surviving spouse will be charged with that responsibility after the loss of the first to die. After the death of the survivor, most commonly one or more of the children are named as Personal Representative(s), and will be responsible for the administration and probate of the estate of one, and possibly two, parents. There are, as I call them, three gifts that parents can give their children to make the administrative process easier when the time comes.
First, the parents can do what is known as “pre-need funeral planning”. The parents make all arrangements in advance, from choosing a funeral home, to arranging for burial or cremation, to the selection of items such as a casket or urn, an officiant, the type and location of a funeral or memorial service, a wake or shiva, and all other matters that are important to them. The parents pay for all in advance, so upon their passing, everything is already in order. This takes an enormous burden off of the children who are otherwise faced with making many choices very quickly at a time when they may not be in an emotional condition to make rational decisions. There is also no need to worry about having access to sufficient funds to cover the costs of a funeral.
The next gift the parents can give their children is to keep accurate, organized and complete financial records in one location so that the Personal Representative doesn’t have to wander through stacks of random paperwork to determine what mom or dad owned at death. I have an image in my mind of an incredibly disorganized client whose random bank statements, stock certificates, investment account information, retirement account statements, life insurance policies and who knows what else (you get the idea) are bursting out of drawers all over the house. The assembly and unraveling of all of that information will be like the most frustrating treasure hunt the searcher will ever experience. So even if you are the most disorganized pack rat known to man, give your children the gift of breaking that habit, at least for these purposes.
Finally, I often tell my senior clients that one of the greatest gifts they can give their children (with tongue in cheek) is to “clean the attic”. Often parents have been living in the same home for decades and have amassed a staggering collection of items that they have not thought of in almost as long. When the time comes that the children must clean out the house, the job will be far more challenging if nothing has been done to purge in advance. Many professional organizers offer services to help seniors assess and dispose of ancient and unwanted items, so that dismantling the home will be more manageable for the children later on. Of course, this does not apply to the antique tiffany lamp sitting in the attic for three decades that two of the children suddenly both want and will fight over for weeks, nor does it apply to the situation where the children each put a colored sticker on various items around the house in order to lay claim to them. (All true stories, and it amazes me sometimes what happens to sibling relationships when it is time to divide up mom and dad’s personal property.) That aside, there is no doubt that the attic and basement will be stuffed with long-forgotten items that can be disposed of in an organized purge with the assistance of a competent professional organizer.
I urge seniors to consider whether they wish to address these “gifts”. Any or all of the above will be greatly helpful to those you leave behind. Unless, of course, you have “ungrateful children” and want to make them work as hard as they can on purpose. This is the last gift you can offer to your children, from the grave.