Being Mindful of Dying (continued)

By Bill Stork

Part of the answer, suggested by our classmate Steve Buck, is to read cover to cover AARP’s The Other Talk: A Guide to Talking with Your Adult Children about the Rest of Your Life, by Tim Prosch. Have a look at the reviews on Amazon. Steve reports that the book is amazingly useful because it makes the whole subject a process, rather than a sudden, unprepared-for event. Bringing your children in, hopefully long before your demise, makes things easier for everyone, particularly in dealing with the myriad of things I outline below.

Personally, I have put together a zippered file pouch for my spouse called “Just in Case I Might Die.” (Yes, I can already hear the concerns about the implied “negativity,” but I have yet to hear disagreement with the “inevitability” issue!) Let me briefly enumerate the contents.

1. What to do first:

  • Draw up a number of pre-addressed envelopes for key parties like insurance companies, banks, Social Security and the like, and, if you are abroad, know where you can have copies of a death certificate notarized quickly. I have a number of envelopes ready for my widow to use for sending these notarized death certificates, and a cover note (see box). For each there is a registered mail form, the receipt from which shows proof and date of mailing. In the US, many states funeral homes obtain the death certificates, which do not need to be notarized.
  • Prepare to send obituary information. Many funeral homes and services do this, but if you want emphasis on things you are particularly proud of, or that might get neglected, compiling your own notes will help your survivors. Names and contact information for appropriate non-family members who likely will be willing to give independent comments are also useful. Consider listing media, from newspapers to newsletters that run paid death notices or staff-written profiles of people whose lives the editors decide are newsworthy.
Sample cover note to go with death notifications

Buckley 18 #03-06
18 Buckley Road
Tel: (65) 9456 8130
DATE: _______________

Dear Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance:

RE: Policy #566XXX SSN 561-XX- XXXX
And #553XXX

This letter is to inform you that WILLIAM W. STORK is deceased. A notarized copy of his death certificate is enclosed.

Please direct any and all reimbursement matters to his surviving spouse, WONG Lai King Jasmine, at the above address.

Please provide death benefits.

Should you have any queries, please contact the above. Should you have your own form that needs be submitted, please send it to the above address.

Thank you.

2. If you are a US citizen and have Social Security benefits, you will need to alert the Social Security Administration that those benefits now need to go to your spouse. Set this up by giving the SSA a bank account for your spouse’s direct deposit, and make sure for four months that it is working. If the account where the deposits are currently coming in from the SSA is a joint account, you do not need to worry about the above.

As an aside, to make any estate settlement easier, all my holdings are now jointly held in “my name and/or spouse’s name” so that after death, all are in her name and nothing will go into any “estate.”

3. Insurance. In most cases, the beneficiary is the spouse. However, should you wish to revise this so that children automatically get a portion of the estate, thus avoiding any personal claims over that division, revise your insurance beneficiary designations. Those with trusts should consult their financial advisors.

4. Medical procedures. Advice on this is variable, and is best developed with local sources. My personal position: I am a keen advocate of hospice and of living wills. Either or both of these intentions need not only to be described to close members of the family, but also, in my mind, to have their notarized signatures on the descriptions saying “I accept.” This is most important.

Here in Singapore, where I live, there is what is called a “registration of Advance Medical Directive” which prohibits any medical attempt to prolong life artificially. This is a governmental form, but one that those in other jurisdictions can adopt easily. I can send copies on request. It is in essence a Living Will, and for your location you might want to consult your local attorney. This is critical to have signed, witnessed, notarized and disseminated to family members.

5. Burial This can be a source of family disagreements if not spelled out and acknowledged by family members in advance. My father summoned us and told us of his wish to have his ashes distributed by the Neptune Society, a group that collects the body from the funeral home for cremation and if requested can scatter the ashes at sea. While we may have disagreed with his choice of a final resting place, at least that decision was taken from us. It was merciful.

6. Will: It is important to have your attorney review and refine this document. Then it is up to you to review it annually. It is very easy for you to annex any “codicil” (a revision to an existing will) should that be necessary. It should be reviewed by your attorney first, and then witnessed by two others who are not related to you. Be sure always to get contact information for any witnesses to your documents! Get permission of the person named as Executor to take that responsibility, and be sure that any fees are specifically recorded.

7. Charitable Donations. If you want to name a charity in your will, your lawyer can suggest a specific statement. AARP recommends the generic “I bequeath to _________ $_________ to continue providing __________ for our community.” You get the idea: who, what and purpose.

8. Assets. A suggestion from Steve Buck: “Dealing with the estate of my mother-in-law, who died March 1, we went to an estate attorney who showed us on her desk the estate of someone else with 26 different folders for the person’s assets. Each asset with a different bank, mutual fund or stock had to be dealt with separately, a tedious, very time consuming and expensive process with the lawyer’s clock ticking at $325 an hour.” You can save your heirs a lot of trouble and money if you have all your mutual funds, for example, with one company. Same with bank accounts, etc. This does not mean you have to only own one family of mutual funds. I have Vanguard Funds and have moved all my other mutual funds to a brokerage account with Vanguard. This will save lots of work when estate time comes. It’s no fun for heirs trying to track down stock certificates, Series E bonds and God knows what.

A seemingly in-the-weeds point, but one that can save a lot of assets from being in probate: With IRAs at least, and perhaps other mutual fund investments, at least with Vanguard, the IRAs, regular and Roth, go directly to the beneficiary without being part of the estate. In some cases “Payable on Death” accounts at a bank can avoid probate, too.

9. Possessions. There may be things that you would like to have donated to friends, family, or others. It would not be a bad idea to go through your memorabilia and accumulations and make a spreadsheet designation for any/all of them. This seems to be a momentous undertaking, but it does go quickly (believe me) and will save any later rancor within family about who gets what. If this appears too daunting, have the kids come to the house and tell you what they want. You may find one of them willing to help with the spreadsheet, being presumably more adept at such things that most of us 75-year-olds. For several of my family items, rather than bequeathing them I am ‘gifting’ them early. This will save my spouse the burden of packing and shipping later. Also, it is probably a good idea to also designate a “contingent beneficiary.” This can either be a part of the will or of a codicil, but wherever, it will do much to provide future family harmony.

10. Possessions not needed by spouse or others. It is good to have a designated recipient of unwanted items. In the USA I used Goodwill, in Asia, Oxfam, and in both places the Salvation Army. I would ask beneficiaries to consider only these or whichever others you want.

11. Other Resources (and see below). Complete on-line, print, and add to your portfolio the “AARP Foundation Confidential Organizer.” Each person needs to request his or her own copy (click on this link). It is quite comprehensive. In general, it provides for listing things like credit cards, bank accounts, passwords, retirement accounts, life insurance, tax records, locations of important documents (birth and marriage certificates, passport, etc.), safe deposit box, real estate, lawyers, financial experts/advisors, will, living will, and executor and fee. TIAA-CREF has a helpful “Personal Life Inventory” brochure.

Please contribute more ideas. I would be delighted if other classmates could add reflections of their own about how hard it is to get started, psychological issues, their own tips/disasters ensuing from failure to do this, and/or other suggestions. Let us keep this important dialogue going!

Financial Birds and Bees

More from Steve Buck on “The Other Talk: A guide to Talking with your Adult Children about the Rest of Your life”

“The other talk” is the talk which, alas, very, very few parents have after that first, furtive one about the birds and the bees. And it’s essential. It’s all about sitting down and doing all the stuff Bill talks about — and putting it all in one binder, in categories like those Bill describes — and then sitting down with the kids and really getting into sensitive stuff such as 1) who of the children (assuming there are children to help) is going to take over the finances if the parents can’t do it; 2) who is going to be the primary person handling medical care and all those complications; 3) what does mom or pop want in terms of end of life care, etc., etc., etc.

The book does a really good job of covering seemingly lugubrious subjects in a very positive way. In fact the process can be joyful in focusing on those coming after. We have already had a lot of these conversations with our daughter and son-in-law. And it has helped us get our affairs in order.

Steve and his wife, Hala, have been part of a group of five couples who have been meeting for 15 years, talking about retirement, getting older, and dying. This book was the focus for their annual October retreat. Steve is happy to respond to queries on the subject. He is at


Further Readings
That Bill Stork Has Found Helpful.

Atul Gawande: “Letting Go” The New Yorker, August 2, 2010.

The last days of life: much of our health-care spending is on patients in their final months. But does that treatment leave them worse off?

Ira Byock: “Dying shouldn’t be so brutal” New York Times

There’s an assumption that dramatically improving how people die would be too complicated or costly, but the opposite is true.

The ABA and AARP have just combined forces on a book by Sally Balch Hurme called Checklist for Family Survivors—A Guide to Practical and Legal Matters When Someone You Love Dies. It’s available from their website.

Please comment on this article at the issue’s combined comments page by clicking here.

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