A post-mortem letter is not meant to replace a Will and is not a legal document, but it can provide a family with instructions during a very emotional time. This advanced planning and consideration is a gift that you can provide your family as to your last wishes and to help alleviate any stress on next steps. A copy of this letter should be placed where it can be easily found, and you should provide a copy to your attorney, CPA and/or financial advisor. They will be able to advise your loved ones as to certain matters that they will be facing in the months to come. Here are some items that should be addressed:
If you have made arrangements for funeral services, provide details in this letter, including the location of the deed or certificate related to the cemetery plot. Express your wishes as it relates to visiting hours, funeral services, and where you would like it to be held. If you prefer to be cremated, let your family know if you would like your ashes to be buried, spread across the ocean, etc., otherwise, they may sit on the bookcase for years. You may want to address the following in your letter:
- Do you have certain facts about yourself or a favorite picture that you would like highlighted in your obituary or eulogy?
- Would you like any of your organs donated?
- Are there certain songs or readings that you would like used at your funeral?
- Is there a particular family member or friend that you would like to participate in the service?
- Would you prefer donations be made to a certain charity, in lieu of flowers?
- Are there any specific traditions that you would like followed?
There are so many immediate decisions to be made at the time of death, often with many family members having differing opinions. By expressing your wishes, you allow your family to grieve and focus on getting through those initial days without extra turmoil. You may want to suggest a non-family member to accompany a visit to the funeral home to ensure that there is no undo pressure, guilt and overspending in making the arrangements. The funeral home can provide you with certified death certificates, we recommend 10 copies.
In addition to your last wishes, providing guidance and instructions to your family and your personal representative on the location of important documents, list of advisors and immediate administrative matters that need to be addressed can alleviate a lot of stress at a very trying time.
Estate Planning File
You should identify your personal representative (executor) and where to find a copy of your estate plan. Also, provide contact information for your estate planning attorney. Your personal representative will want to make an appointment with your attorney within two or three days after the funeral so that he/she can start the estate settlement and distribution process.
You may want to explain in layman’s terms or provide an illustration as to how your assets will be distributed to your family members. For example:
By the terms of my will, you will receive outright everything in my estate, except the assets used to fund a credit shelter trust, of which you shall receive the income for life. In addition, you will receive my life insurance proceeds, social security benefits and pension plan benefits. You must apply for my social security benefits within one year of my death.
These assets should provide you with enough income to live comfortably. Our children are established both financially and emotionally to take care of themselves and you should not feel obligated to withhold from yourself to support them.
Bank Accounts and Credit Cards
All checking, savings accounts and credit cards should be listed with the respective account numbers and passwords for access. Instruct the personal representative whether an account should have a stop on withdrawals placed from these accounts or whether a co-owner has a right to these monies. Joint accounts should be changed to single name. Credit cards should be destroyed and reissued in the survivor’s name, if desired and the company allows.
Safe Deposit Box
Include information on where the safe deposit box is held and where the key is located. Include a list of its contents. Your personal representative will have to contact your attorney as to the right of access under state law.
Brokerage and Investment Accounts
Provide contact information for your personal representative to notify your financial advisor in writing and instruct them to nullify standing or special instructions that may be in place to buy or sell certain securities and to refrain from making any dramatic changes to the investments until they have an opportunity to meet with them.
Make a list of any life insurance policies and their respective policy numbers along with the beneficiaries. Your personal representative should request the life insurance companies to send them claim forms. They should confer with your financial planner before deciding whether to take the proceeds as a lump sum or in installments. Beware of converting these policies to annuities which could lock the proceeds up years and may incur a penalty on withdrawal. If you are unsure if there are any life insurance policies, you can contact the American Council of Life Insurers (www.acli.com) which offers guidance on tracing missing policies.
If still employed at time of death, your representative should notify the Human Resources department so that they can provide a list of any retirement assets (401k, Pension, Deferred Comp) and a list of beneficiaries. Also, provide instructions regarding any stock options, restricted stock or other ownership interests that you have earned. Other things to consider:
- Are there any additional benefits such as health insurance that a spouse may be eligible to receive for a period of time?
- Were there any earned bonuses or commissions, accrued vacation or sick time that have not been paid?
A list of all prior employers should be kept, no matter how long ago you were employed, as your spouse may be entitled to pension benefits or death benefits. Provide the executor with a record of any governmental employment, past or present. For the armed services, include the branch of service, serial number, and approximate dates of service. Your spouse may be entitled to veterans’ benefits or survivors’ benefits. The Social Security Administration will pay a $255 death benefit upon application. Your personal representative should check with them as to any other benefits for which your issue may be entitled.
Offer a contact at work that would be a good resource to claim any personal items from the office, as well as any personal correspondence files. You may suggest that your personal representative request that your employer monitor emails for a period of time to make sure no personal correspondence or statements are being sent to the work email.
Include how your home is titled. Full title will pass to your spouse by operation of law, outside of the probate court (or the Trust will continue to own our home). Let them know where the title papers are located. You may want to include the particulars of your mortgage and if you have mortgage insurance, specifically if it will be paid off by insurance proceeds. If the deceased’s home is unoccupied, cancel unnecessary home services, such as newspaper delivery, cable service, etc.
Income, Estate and Other Taxes
Your CPA and attorney should be contacted regarding the tax returns and forms to be filed. Indicate where recent copies of your tax returns are located. Federal and state income taxes are due for the year of death on the normal filing date, unless an extension is requested. The estate may need to file an estate tax return within nine months from the date of death. State estate tax and/or inheritance tax returns may also need to be filed, and may have a different filing date.
With an increasingly digital world, it’s very important to compile a list of all online logins and passwords with the respective security questions. Let a trusted person know where these passwords can be found and make sure that you update this list periodically.
Social Media accounts are stored online these days, usually behind password access, so what happens to them when we die and they’re inaccessible? In the digital age, keeping our personal affairs in order includes social media accounts and emails.
- Facebook - will delete an account permanently upon the family's request. They will never release login information to anyone other than the account holder, even after death. First, someone must use an online form to report the user's demise. Within that form is a space to include a link to an obituary or news report confirming the death. Before making any changes, Facebook requires proof that the user has died. Facebook employees then review the user's profile to verify there has been no recent activity. Only then will the company begin the conversion process.
- LinkedIn - you can close an account if you have basic personal information plus a link to their obituary, and the name of the company they last worked for.
- Instagram can memorialize or deactivate an account in a similar way to Facebook, while Pinterest can deactivate it.
- Google - by using Google’s Inactive Account Manager you can specify what you would like done with your accounts after you die, or are no longer able to use them, by adding trusted contacts. Google will not provide login data or passwords - they hold all the data.
- iTunes - music files are not ‘owned’, they are ‘licensed’ - hence when you die, the license goes with you. However, Apple does allow switching accounts if the login details were known.
If you own your cars or boats, make sure you provide the location of the Titles to these assets. Make a list of all publications to which you subscribe. You may want your representative to cancel those which are no longer relevant. They will also want to notify any clubs to cancel memberships, and review statements to see if any of them are on auto-pay.
Attach a listing of names, addresses and telephone numbers for easy reference. As questions come up, your representative may wish to call your attorney or financial advisor.
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We have created this guide to be as comprehensive as possible, certainly as each situation is unique there may be other topics that should be addressed in yours.