It’s a weighty question that we’ve all thought about at one time or another. Everybody hopes to have meaningful impact on the world while they’re here, whether that means touching the lives of millions or even just one person. That’s never going to change.
But the ways in which we prepare for death and memorialize our dearly departed are changing. And, like nearly everything else these days, technology has a hand in it. Some groups may be trying to crack the code on immortality, like Calico, a company started by Google and Apple to research how to prolong the human lifespan. Others are using software to try to solve more tractable problems.
Yes, it seems even death—or, rather, the death industry—is “ripe for disruption,” says Boston serial entrepreneur and investor Dave Balter. He is working on a stealthy startup, Mylestoned, tied to how we remember the dead.
“There’s no question that we’re in an era where death has not only become something we’re more aware [of] and comfortable [with] as individuals, but also that the industry has not evolved significantly to match how we live today,” says Balter, who previously co-founded startups in social marketing, online skills assessments, and leadership development.
He’s referring to funeral homes and the traditional custom of burying the dead in caskets, beneath a headstone. People are more “transient” these days, and it’s less common for them to live near the cemetery where their deceased relatives are buried or to routinely visit their graves, Balter says. At the same time, more people are opting for cremation, in part, he argues, because they want their lives honored in a different way, perhaps by having their ashes scattered into the sea.
“You’re seeing a major, major shift in how people think about what to do with their loved ones,” Balter says. “We’re searching for something more meaningful—something to memorialize our loved ones in the places where they had impact.”
And that’s what he’s trying to do with his new startup. It’s still early, and Balter isn’t ready to share more details about what he’s planning.
But his company is certainly not the only one hatching new ways to deal with death in the digital age. Humans have always grappled with their own mortality, and Balter thinks there’s increased interest among entrepreneurs because people are becoming more thoughtful about the value of their contributions to the world, and they’re preparing more for their eventual eulogy.
Technology is helping to “reframe what death means” to us, Balter says.
“We’re starting to see our lives so much more clearly through social media, through all these lenses,” he says.
At the same time, people are becoming more cognizant of death and its role in life, Balter says. “There’s greater awareness of what that looks like in a realm where we can all see each other’s worlds.”
Other tech startups are trying to help people prepare for their own deaths. One example is Cake, a young Boston company that participated in this year’s MassChallenge startup accelerator program. Cake developed an app that helps guide users through end-of-life planning, including giving them a checklist of recommended steps like designating a healthcare proxy and buying life insurance, and allowing them to create an online handbook of posthumous preferences and wishes for loved ones, doctors, and lawyers to carry out.
The year-old company is led by Suelin Chen, an MIT-trained materials scientist and engineer who has worked as a research assistant at Massachusetts General Hospital and directed The Laboratory at Harvard, a center for arts and sciences experimentation. Chen’s funeral playlist, according to her company’s website: “Islands in the Stream,” by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton; Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love”; and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” by Queen.
Another startup, Israel-based SafeBeyond, recently launched a service that allows users to create an online vault of important documents and messages that can be shared posthumously with loved ones.
With SafeBeyond, people can record video or audio messages or type up letters that will be released to their heirs upon a predetermined triggering event. Those triggers can be an exact date, say a child’s 18th birthday; a major life event, such as a future wedding (a trustee previously chosen by the deceased would notify SafeBeyond that the event has occurred); or when an heir visits a specified place that holds meaning to the family, such as a favorite vacation spot.
Users who leave messages behind can’t “make the sadness disappear,” but the digital relics can help loved ones “cope a little better with the fact that I’m gone,” SafeBeyond founder and CEO Moran Zur explains.
SafeBeyond is positioning its service as a sort of digital time capsule that provides “emotional life insurance,” Zur says.
Like many startups, the idea for SafeBeyond was born of personal experience. Zur, a native of Israel, was 25 when he lost his father to cancer in 2002. Four years later, as Zur was preparing to get married, his father’s absence was saddening and frustrating. There were times that he “didn’t feel like doing” a big wedding in Israel without his father, he says.
“There’s so many things that you don’t think about it, but you kind of never get a chance to discuss when you’re 25,” Zur says. “You don’t think about getting married, you don’t think about kids, you don’t think about other advice that might be needed in the most important moments. What would my father have said about that?”
That gave Zur the idea for SafeBeyond, which he put on the backburner for several years while he led a brokerage company. But in 2012, hardship struck again—Zur’s wife was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer. Their son was 3 years old at the time, he says.
After chemotherapy failed to help, the family turned to alternative treatments that improved her health. Fortunately, she is “doing well” these days, Zur says.
Zur took his wife’s illness as a call to leave his comfortable job in the financial industry and start SafeBeyond, which is offering its online storage service for free.
“I’m doing it for her, doing it for my son as the receiver of these future messages,” Zur says. “It might be that he receives mine before he receives hers.”
Zur says he raised $500,000 in seed funding for SafeBeyond, which is based in Tel Aviv, with an outpost in New York. The company currently has six employees.
Zur says an exit for the company is not his primary concern, and he thinks the business can be sustained by charging for premium features on top of the basic free service, which gives users 1 gigabyte of storage.
But what if SafeBeyond itself dies? The company chose Amazon Web Services to host documents in the cloud, which was partly a move to provide more peace of mind that users’ messages will be preserved and disseminated after they die, even if SafeBeyond doesn’t endure, Zur says. “Our cost will be really, really small to maintain all that,” he adds.
Other services SafeBeyond offers include posting a pre-written final posthumous message on users’ social media pages and storing social media login information so that designated loved ones can access the accounts. People might not realize that without the account passwords, sites like Dropbox or Gmail won’t allow heirs to access deceased users’ accounts, Zur says. Facebook, meanwhile, has set up a legacy contact option that allows a designee to look after your account after you’ve passed away.
The fate of your social media accounts may not be as consequential as what happens to your remains or your assets. But the reality is that, for better or worse, the information about you floating around the Web could be the only thing tied to you that lives forever, at least publicly.
“If someone will go and search my name in 20 years in Google or whatever is going to be the interface, you will find some stuff about me easily, even if I’m gone,” Zur says. “Life has changed in this digital age. It can be debated, [but] from my perspective, there’s no way to be forgotten. At least take responsibility and decide how you want to be remembered.”
Last semester I tried to create a college classroom that was a technological desert. I wanted the space to be a respite from the demands and distractions of smartphones, tablets, and computers.
So I banned the use of technology — because asking students to be professional digital citizens had not worked.
Simply requesting that students put away their phones was an exercise in futility. Adding a line in the syllabus that there would be grade penalties for unprofessional use of technology brought about no change in their habits of swiping and clicking.
They meant no disrespect. Technology pulled at them — and pulls at us — creating a sense of urgency that few can ignore.
I get it. This is not a college-student problem (I’ve been to faculty meetings). It’s a human problem. But I’m a college instructor, and so classrooms have become my sites of technological resistance and rebellion. It was time for me to usher in an era of digital death, at least for three 50-minute stretches a week.
After four years of teaching, I could not bear to look at one more student smiling at his or her crotch — the universally preferred location to keep one’s phone for “surreptitious” texting. (Note to students: If you’re smiling in that direction, your attempts at stealth are going to get noticed.)
I could not stand to hear one more refrain of frenzied keyboard tapping. When someone pounds with that much urgency, I can assure you he isn’t transcribing what I’m saying.
But as each semester came and went, I didn’t have the courage to enact a flat-out ban on technology use. It seemed antiquarian, technophobic, selfish, dictatorial. Besides, as a college instructor, wasn’t I supposed to help students maneuver through distractions without exiling problem devices? Wasn’t college supposed to prepare students for the real world and its distractions?
But then I read the manifesto of Clay Shirky, a New York University professor, on why he was asking his students to put away their connected devices. And I thought, why not? After all, a college classroom is not the real world. At its best, it’s a cocoon that allows its residents to try out new ideas, push boundaries, and stretch into a new sense of self. How can we let the latest cat video disrupt that?
What eventually persuaded me was Professor Shirky’s assertion that these devices are designed to be distracting — to grab, get, and keep our attention on them and away from everything else. If it’s a competition between me and an iPhone, I don’t stand a chance. And, more important, students don’t stand a chance to engage and participate when their phones lure them into the labyrinth of the digital world.
So I followed in Shirky’s footsteps and those of others: Henceforth, in my classroom, all phones, computers, and tablets had to remain zipped in backpacks. I was surprised when students accepted this new rule. Maybe they welcomed a break from the devices that pull them every which way. But I can’t report that all students obeyed the rule at all times. Even I found myself sneaking in glances at my phone to see if my daughter’s day-care provider had called. But that was OK, because violations were rare and did not compromise my goal of creating an environment in which students are not shackled to their devices.
This new normal meant students would daydream when they finished an assignment early. I had almost forgotten what it was like to gaze upon a group of people whose minds were allowed to wander freely, pencils tapping against desks. Imagine that! During class downtime, students opened books, played with Silly Putty, and just plain stared straight ahead.
They were allowed to be bored, and I was thrilled. Who knows what organic, stream-of-conscious highway their neurons were traveling down? I hope it was as beautiful as it looked.
At the end of the semester, I asked students how the ban worked for them. Their answer was practical: The early-morning hour made the ban easier, since they didn’t expect any urgent texts when many friends were still tucked in bed. Timing is everything, I suppose.
I’ve come to realize that the only way forward is to extract the problem from its root, by physically disconnecting the device from the hand. The devices fared fine for 50 minutes in a backpack. Afternoon classes, as students emerge into the prime of their digital day, might prove to be a greater challenge, but I think it’s one worth tackling for the calm that descends on a tech-free class.
For me it was lovely to coexist in a space a few times each week where we relied on earlier technological forms: those of the mind. Pings be damned.
nyctwigg: Ah, there you are; a Skype username you created while working in New York for a month. And here I am, trying to call someone yet absent-mindedly pulling up your profile. In the tiny square picture icon, you are there in your blue T-shirt, leaning over the table and smiling at the camera. Next to your name it says, “Hear me now”.
That drove me mad; you’d sit there and repeat, “Hear me now? Hear me now?” A deliberately annoying mantra, because you knew I could hear you perfectly well. I would hang up and redial to a laughing you and we’d catch up, but today I sit and stare, wishing I could conjure up that annoying voice again. Even just once.
I press the little video camera icon to see if I can get through. But it doesn’t even give me the satisfaction of ringing. Instead the screen says “ended” and the call hangs itself up. Guess that’s fair. That’s when I realise it says “offline”. “nyctwigg offline”. Also fair. I should delete your account … and your phone number, email address and all sorts of other aspects of your online life. I sit and wonder if other people you were connected to have deleted your profile. And I stare out the window wondering if I should try to call you again.
My husband, Iain, and I met at school when we were 17, dated in the sixth form, went our separate ways at university, then got back together and married in a flurry of excitement in 2008. Iain worked for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office so we lived, worked and adventured together for seven years in Delhi and Geneva. In October 2013, Iain was diagnosed with a brain tumour, and on 7 December 2014, he died in our bed at home. On that morning, my husband, our hoped for family and my future roadmap of work and travel for the next 40 years, all vanished in one shuddering breath. We were both 33.
Six months along this single-track pathway, I’m repeatedly aware I have to rebuild and reshape my life – a life I can’t remember distinct from Iain. If your partner dies, a lot of admin also comes your way. And, these days, people die a digital death alongside their physical one, which creates a whole new world of admin that didn’t pass the radar of grieving widows 50 years ago. Those 20th-century widows would have had a box of love letters and a few hard copy photos; I have Facebook messages, professional videos on YouTube, personal videos on my iPhone, email histories, recorded Skype chats, WhatsApp conversations, text messages and digital photos – photos galore. And all this from a marriage with someone who never really liked spending time online. He set out his stall at 18 announcing that he wouldn’t be getting a mobile phone because they “seem pretty annoying, I doubt they’ll catch on”.
I’ve found at least one blog that tries to make sense of it all. The Digital Beyond, which offers a “go-to source for archival, cultural, legal and technical insights, to help you predict and plan for the future of your online content”. Along with “scatter tubes” – tubes with a perforated lid for transporting and scattering ashes – and bespoke jewellery made from ashes, it’s another blossoming industry I never knew existed.
The blog lists 54 online companies that deal specifically with aspects of dying or, more commonly, the legacy of memories online. I’m slightly spooked by the number of websites that help you send posthumous messages to your friends and relatives. ToLovedOnes, for example, will send letters after your death, calculating the dates they are posted “with 95% accuracy from public records”. Which just leaves me worrying about the 5% of people who receive the letters when their relative is still alive.
Knotify.me, meanwhile, is a free app that answers the question you never knew you had; “What happens to all my online accounts if I get amnesia, Alzheimer’s or if I leave this world?” It helps you set future notifications for your family or yourself, so “nothing of your digital life will be wasted”. Remembered Voices lets you record your voice and play it back to people after you’ve died, Cirrus Legacy stores digital assets in a single place online, so your executor can access them easily. That would have been helpful, in fact. Terry Pratchett was in the know – his recent death was announced in a series of tweets from his own account.
Just as we’re playing catch up with technology, the technology developers themselves are in the same position. Dying, understandably, didn’t feature highly in Facebook’s early risk registers. Which might be why it was in trouble recently for locking a grieving mother out of her teenage daughter’s Facebook account, despite having her daughter’s permission to use it.
When someone dies, Facebook tends to “memorialise” their account – freeze them so they can be viewed, but providing no access to past messages. I read that and panicked: I didn’t want that to happen, so grabbed my laptop and logged in urgently as Iain. Once in though, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do – it didn’t feel right reading personal messages to and from other people. They weren’t for me. If he’d left a box of letters, would I have read those? People store important letters, but online messages are kept just because we don’t press delete. Should I read his emails? I didn’t. But I read and reread our text message conversations, which lifted me up so high it felt like we were actually chatting. Then when I got to the end and there were no more, it was a bad, long fall from there. So I decided memorialising was OK.
Facebook also offended a fair number of bereaved people with its Year in Review clips, in which photographs that attracted the most comments were automatically selected to reappear on your timeline under the words “Here’s what your year looked like”. The problem was that for some, these were pictures of dead loved ones. And, however comforting photos and associated memories can be, out of the blue and at the wrong moment on your computer screen they can cause havoc if you are grieving.
The bereaved: an oversensitive minority population, you may think, but the numbers involved are bigger than you may realise. Based on Facebook’s growth rate, and the age breakdown of its users over time, probably 10 to 20 million people who created Facebook profiles have since died. Even if Facebook closed registration tomorrow, the number of deaths per year will continue to grow for decades, as the 2000-2020 school generations grow old. And the peak? Nasa physicist turned full-time cartoonist Randall Munroe estimates that if Facebook falls out of favour with young generations, as many social media sites do, the point at which there will be more users who have died than are living is around 2060. And if Facebook continues to thrive, that’s more like 2130.
In the hours and immediate few days after Iain died, I turned to the memorial website built overnight by a kind colleague to celebrate my man’s life. A bewildered and floundering group of Iain’s closest friends and family immersed ourselves in a world of photos and memories and words and purpose. Three days later, all within half an hour, the website went live, an email to the worldwide Foreign and Commonwealth Office workforce went out and I put a “global announcement” on Facebook. “Informing friends of the deceased”, 21st-century style. I changed my profile to black, shut my laptop and left the house; the internet did its thing – with speed, breadth and a rush of wildfire.
I hadn’t anticipated the outpouring of love from around the world. Within minutes there were messages from Japan, Pakistan, Chile … the inhabitants of our interconnected world, suddenly spinning inwards to be connected by shock and grief, then spinning out again to their own physical pockets around the world.
Today, one of the things I cherish most is an eight-second video of Iain telling me he loves me. There’s something about seeing him as if in real life and hearing his voice, that is just quite incredible. The only downside is that it’s far too short. And it’s all I’m going to get now. I wish I had more videos – they are by far the hardest thing to look at right now, but I sense that one day they will be some of the most precious things I have.
Otherwise a huge comfort and unity online has come from a network for younger people whose partners have died – Way (Widowed and Young). In the past month, I’ve got to know some of the 1,500 people in that group by seeing their biggest fears, their “smallest” achievements, their practical worries and their rallying strength posted online in a closed group. A sub-set of our society, normal people living normal lives that suddenly know tragedy and are thrust together in their confusion and loneliness and upset.
I don’t use the rest of Facebook so much now – I posted a positive few things early on and hadn’t expected so many instantaneous likes and messages saying I was “amazing”. It was too surreal to be told that when you’re barely able to hold a conversation in real life, and it made me feel strange. I’m certainly not going to start covering Facebook with the reality of the new world I have found myself living in since Iain’s death – people don’t go there to see the truth if it’s not pretty.
So, after I put my phone aside each evening and disconnect myself from my online communities, the moment just after my head hits the pillow is when the reality of my sadness becomes so stark. The moment I go from being exhausted to somehow feeling wide awake, when I feel so, so solo. I look over at Iain’s side of the bed and just his picture grins back at me. I poke my toe over the cold sheet and I wonder how it can be that he was right there, and now he’s not. I think about friends in their homes, with their favourite people breathing quietly beside them. I think of people listening out for babies in other rooms. For their children stirring. I want to say, “Imagine none of those people are in your house now, imagine that silence. And imagine it’s for always.” That’s how alone it feels.
As I lie there I wonder, have I fallen off the end of the world? I’ve discovered that when you cry while you’re lying on your back, your tears slide into your ears, which fill up and feel strange. I shake my head. And at some point I fall asleep. And then I wake up too early and feel the same.
As I take the commuter train, I look at everyone on their smartphones. I imagine there are others also scrolling through pictures of their families, just as I am with photos of Iain. I see a message from a lady, a new friend, whose husband also died of a brain tumour a few days before Iain – we’ve never met but have shared such a similarly traumatic story that we’re linked to each other now. As I go to reply, I’m aware that we’d never have connected if this had been 1915, not 2015.
Caroline Twigg has written a book to help bereaved children. Find out more at http://kck.st/1GL3UzI where she is raising money to illustrate and publish it
While individuals will eventually pass on, the internet is forever. Online accounts from games, apps and social media are becoming increasingly valuable. In an age of expanding online presence, estate planners and administrators should take into account the digital life of the client or the decedent, even if online accounts may not always trigger ownership or property issues.
Confronted with the growing problem of how to treat the deaths of account holders, Facebook recently put into place a mechanism by which an account holder may designate a “legacy contact” to administer her or his Facebook account after the account holder’s death. This digital personal representative can then update the profile, write a post on the profile to share a message or information, and change the profile picture and cover photo of the deceased user. Facebook also allows users to give advance directives as to how the account does or does not live on after death. Twitter and LinkedIn have yet to create such simple mechanisms for planning for the digital estate, but account holders should include with relevant estate planning documents the necessary credentials to carry out actions concerning these and other accounts after death. In many instances, these accounts require substantial documentation to end or modify the accounts, with potentially undesirable results.
Digital life also creates tricky problems for finding financial assets, as online accounts can contain assets that clearly fall within the bounds of an estate. For instance, a relatively new app called “Acorns” rounds up purchases from an account holder’s checking and credit accounts to the nearest dollar and deposits those funds in an investment account. These accounts can be tricky to discover. The only proof of the existence of an Acorns account may be in the confirmation email sent to the account holder or the app itself. The estate’s personal representative would then have no knowledge of the existence of the account without first checking the decedent’s smartphone. Ongoing eBay auctions may commit the estate to sell certain assets, while PayPal may hold a balance to liquidate. Other types of accounts, such as World of WarCraft accounts or property held in virtual worlds such as Second Life, may have real market value that should be included in the estate. World of WarCraft and Second Life are analogous to video games, except the protagonist is unique to the user and can learn skills, create products, work jobs or even own property in a virtual setting. These two online platforms allow users to interact with players from around the world and build value in their characters or properties that holds true dollar value for the estate. For instance, one World of Warcraft player in 2007 sold a valuable character for roughly $9,500.
Estate planning and administration should take the testator’s digital life into account for planning purposes. As more individuals spend their time online, the assets that they create there will have to find a secure place within a plan for the future or risk floating in the internet ether for a digital eternity. Does your estate plan adequately cover your online assets? Will your family be able to adequately memorialize you in the digital realm?
It’s a fact of life that we’re all going to die at some point. While it’s not something you probably want to think about, you can make things a lot easier on yourself (and your family) if you get everything in order now. Here’s what you need to do.
Your inevitable demise is hopefully not on your mind too often, but it’s still something you should think about long enough to get everything in order. Doing so ensures that everything in your life is organized so others can see what you want to happen after you’re gone, what you own, and how to handle a variety of situations.
If this sounds daunting, don’t worry too much: being unmarried, without children, and without a useful asset to speak of, I was able to get everything in order in about two hours (I still had a lawyer friend double-check everything to ensure I wasn’t accidentally giving my dog medical power of attorney). The more you own the longer it’ll take, but it’s not nearly as time-consuming as it looks because most of this stuff you probably already have ready to go.
Note: You can do a lot of this stuff on your own, but it’s a good idea to speak with a lawyer about your will, assets, and general estate planning. This guide is meant more to get you acquainted with terms, provide DIY options when applicable, and help you collect together what you need.
Decide What Happens After You Die
Planning for your death is actually two things: what happens after you die, and what happens if you’re ill and unable to handle decisions yourself. Let’s start with taking care of what happens after you die, starting with your last will and testament.
Write Your Last Will and Testament
Your last will and testament is a document that designates what happens with your property, guardianship of your children, and names the person (executor) who carries out your wishes after you die. If you don’t own a lot of property, a simple will is likely all you need.
It’s possible to draft up a simple will on your own, but it comes with its own set of pros and cons. These include problems with outdated information, specific state related tax issues, and how they handle specific trusts. As USNews notes, online wills are a one-size fits all solution, that can’t always account for the complicated situations of real life. However, if you only need a very basic will SmartLegalForms, LegalZoom, or RocketLawyer all provide a simple template for doing so for between $15 and $80. These laws and requirements change often, and if you don’t do it right you might unintentionally give someone more power over your estate then you want. Most simple wills have just a few sections where you can say what happens to your assets, and designate who gets any property you own.
When you’re drafting up your will, you’ll also name your executor. After you die, this is the person who handles your estate (all of your property), finances, debts, and everything else. It should go without saying this is a person you would trust to handle your estate when you’re alive. Once you die, a probate court will officially give power to your executor to handle your affairs. They do not have control over your estate until after you die.
Finally, to make the will legally binding, you’ll usually need to get signatures from at least two witnesses (who aren’t beneficiaries listed somewhere on the will), and it’s advisable to get it notarized by a notary public. You can usually find a notary public at your bank, and they act something like an official witness for legal forms.
If you have a lot of assets that you want to designate to multiple people, or to make sure your will is legally sound, you should speak with a lawyer about getting a more advanced will written up. Things start getting really tricky when finances are involved, and if you have a lot of assets it’s worth at least consulting with a lawyer (if you need help finding a reputable lawyer here’s our guide). I spoke with lawyer Elizabeth D Mitchell of Ambler & Keenan, LLC about the basics of what you can expect from an estate planning firm:
I usually start people out with a form and have them think about who they would name as their power of attorney. From there, we’d look at their assets and arrange for special circumstances. It’s important to remember that estate planning isn’t just what happens after death, it’s also about what happens if you’re incapacitated… What I always tell people is that it costs more to clean up a financial mess afterwards then it does to plan ahead.
Mitchell also adds that although it takes a little time to get everything in order, most estate planning lawyers offer some type of free consultation before they into your plan. This is because once they set up a plan with you, you’ll be dealing with them for the rest of your life so it’s important to know exactly what you’re getting into. Mitchell also recommends people at least speak with a lawyer about writing up their will even if they don’t own a lot of property because it’s possible a single mistake could mess everything up. As the New York Times points out, the law is different in every state, and something as minor as not declaring the document a will out loud will make it invalid in certain states. A lawyer is also handy to set up trusts so your family gets paid out. According to the Wall Street Journal, trusts are increasingly important:
Rick Law, founder of estate-planning firm Law ElderLaw LLP in Aurora, Ill., says estate planners increasingly recommend revocable trusts in addition to wills, since they are more private and harder to dispute. “Every will is like a compass that points toward the closest courthouse,” he says.
A revocable living trust can be changed anytime during your lifetime. After you transfer ownership of various assets to the trust, you can serve as the trustee on behalf of beneficiaries you designate. Provided you do so, there aren’t any ongoing fees.
That said, if you don’t own that much, or you don’t mind leaving it all to one person, the whole process of writing out your own will takes about 20-30 minutes. Photo by Ken Mayer.
Outline the Funeral or Memorial Service
Obviously this step is optional, but if you want something specific to happen at your funeral or memorial service after you die it’s a good idea to get it in writing, and let your family know your wishes. Doing so gets rid of the headache of planning for your family, and ensures you get what you want. You don’t need to go in and plan everything out, but here are a few things worth considering:
If you want a burial, you need to find a grave plot. You’ll need to contact a local cemetery and purchase a plot if so. If you want a specific cemetery or plot, the earlier you do this step the better.
If you want cremation, you’ll work with a funeral director, so contact a local funeral home and arrange any details with them.
Decide if you want to pre-pay for any arrangements so you don’t have to worry about your family paying for anything while they wait to get access to your money. Since the average funeral is around $6,500, so it might be helpful to pay ahead of time.
At this time, you can also decide if you want anything specific in a memorial service, how you want the wake handled, and everything else. It’s also common to add these details to the will if you want to make sure your wishes are followed. Obviously this is a very personal event, and what you want depends a lot on your religious and social background. It’s a good idea to make your wishes known to family members to take the pressure off them when the time comes.
Designate What Happens If You’re Ill or Incapacitated
Just as important as what happens after you die is what happens if you’re ill, incompetent, or incapacitated. For this you need a living will, a power of attorney, and a medical power of attorney. If it sounds a little scary, don’t worry, it doesn’t take a lot of time and by the end you’ll know that you’ll only get the medical support you want.
Designate a Power of Attorney
A power of attorney is the person who can attend to financial or legal matters if you fall ill or are unable to handle them for yourself. It’s a good idea to choose a power of attorney so that they can attend to your financial and legal issues immediately after you fall ill. The power of attorney expires when you die, and the control of your finances typically shifts to the executor you named in your will. In some cases this is the same person.
The form to designate a power of attorney varies by state, but if you want to do it yourself you can get a document from the same services where you did your will (SmartLegalForms, LegalZoom, or RocketLawyer). If you’re giving one person complete control over everything you can likely manage to fill this out yourself, but if you want to limit what they can do it’s likely best to consult with a lawyer. Photo by Andy on Flickr.
Prepare a Living Will and Designate a Medical Power of Attorney
Every state has different paperwork for your living will, and different guidelines (you can grab paperwork specific to your state here). Essentially, each form allows you to designate what type of medical care you want to receive if you can’t speak for yourself, as well as designate if you want to donate any of your organs to science. Again, you’ll usually need two witnesses when you sign, and it’s wise to get it stamped by a notary. When you’re finished, keep a copy for yourself, and give copies to your physician, a family member, and your healthcare agent (your lawyer will also keep one if you use one). Additionally, if you do not want CPR or ACLS, you want to fill out a Do Not Resuscitate order with your doctor.
Not every medical procedure known to man is covered in the living will, and for those unexpected occurrences you may also want to designate a medical power of attorney (also known as an agent, attorney-in-fact, health care proxy, or health care surrogate depending on where you live). This person can make medical choices for you if they’re not included on your living will, or if you give them the power to override your previous choices if the circumstance warrants it. Additionally, they can also get the right to see your medical records (which is helpful if you choose anyone other than direct family), apply for Medicare on your behalf, and make choices about any medical procedures when you can’t. Again, this differs by state, but you’ll often name a medical power of attorney on your living will. Of course, before you give someone the power of attorney you’ll want to go over what type of medical treatments you want and don’t want, and make sure they agree to follow your wishes.
The living will and health care power of attorney forms are important for everyone to fill out. I did mine in about 10 minutes. With these completed, you’ll have the peace of mind that you’ll get the medical care you want (or don’t want) in just about every circumstance. Again, a lawyer is helpful here if you’re unclear about anything. If you’re not sure what type of treatments you’d like when you’re incapacitated you should speak with your doctor. Photo by Social Innovation Camp.
Organize Your Finances, Life Insurance, Bills, Debts, and Everything Else
While the bulk of your assets are distributed on your will, you still have a lot of financial obligations out in the world. Naming an executor on your will and a power of attorney is just one step. You’ve probably already done this, but it’s also important to get all your finances organized so your heirs can actually find what they need. According to the National Association of Unclaimed Property, around $32.9 billion assets are currently unclaimed because the state took hold of them instead of the family. So, whether you decide to write up your will with an estate planner or not, you still need to get everything in order.
Two of the most important documents are your life insurance policy (especially policies from former employers) and retirement plans (as well as pensions and annuities), because both are easy to overlook. If your heirs don’t know these accounts and policies exist, they can’t claim them and the funds usually go to the state. So, gather up your various policies and keep them together.
If you don’t have a life insurance policy, you might want to get one, and we’ve walked you through what you need before. A life insurance policy isn’t just about covering your salary after you die, it’s about helping your family pay for funeral costs, car loans, credit cards, mortgages, and everything else.
To make the process easier on your family when you pass away, it’s also a good idea to gather together all your debts (especially big ones like your mortgage, car loans, or credit cards) in one place so your heirs can pay your bills for you while they figure everything else out. You likely already do this, but it’s good to keep everything together so they don’t have to search for it. To make the process even easier (and skip over any conflicts with power of attorney), you can add a family member to at least one of your bank accounts so they always have access to some of your funds.
If you have a lot of sources of income, it’s a good idea to meet with a financial advisor to get everything organized. You can find one through The National Association of Personal Financial Advisors. With your financial advisor you can set up beneficiaries for retirement plans, make your accounts accessible, and create spending plans for your surviving family.
Secure Your Digital Life (and Pass the Keys onto Someone You Trust)
The reason this is an important step is not just to give your heirs access to your bank accounts, it’s also so they can shut down services you don’t want around. For example, Facebook can memorialize your page if you want, but if you don’t want that digital record sticking around, you might make a request to your heirs to delete it outright. Likewise, if an heir wants access to your Google account and you don’t give them the password, they’ll need to provide a name, address, photo ID, email, and death certificate. Which is to say, it’s a lot easier for your family if you just give them your passwords.
So, when you’re putting together your list of usernames and passwords, include instructions for how you want those accounts handled, including if you want them to do anything specific with your home computer. It might seem a little weird, but if you want a little control over how your digital life is handled after you die, this is the only option. If you’re using a password manager like Lastpass then you can just look in your password vault for a full list of all your accounts and passwords. It only takes a couple of minutes to copy the ones that really matter.
Set Up a Master File of Everything
Once you have all your paperwork sorted, wills filled out, and everything else, it’s time to pack that all into master file you share with a close family member or friend. Remember, this includes everything about your life, so keep it in a safe place (or in a safe deposit box), and share it’s location with your family. After completing the steps above, you should have everything in order, but here’s what you should include (List culled together from UC Berkeley, The Wall Street Journal, and our own “In-Case-of Emergency” document):
Letter of instruction
Social security numbers/cards
Passports (numbers and expiration dates)
Driver’s licenses (number, expiration dates)
Names/address/telephone numbers of healthcare professionals
Healthcare proxies/living wills
Medications (dosages, name of prescribing physicians, pharmacy, address/telephone
Social worker or caseworker names and contact information
Passwords, web sites, and other digital information
Income sources (retirement and/or disability benefits, Social Security, etc.)
Financial assets (institution names, account numbers, address/telephone, form of ownership, current value) of cash, bank accounts, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, money market funds, retirement and pension plans, IRAs, annuities, life insurance
Real Estate (property addresses, location of deeds, form of ownership, current value)
Other assets (location of items/titles/documents/form of ownership, current value) including automobiles, boats, inheritances, precious gems, collectibles, household items, hidden valuables/items in storage, loans to family members/friends
Liabilities (Creditor institutions, address/telephone, approximate debt) of mortgages, personal loans, credit cards, notes, IOUs, other).
While some of these records need to be physical copies (like your birth certificate), others, like contact info, a copy of your will, and property information can be digital, so use whatever system you’re more comfortable with. Whatever you decide, keep everything organized in a folder together, and let a family member know where everything is.
If you need a little help getting everything organized, webapps Everplans, Get Your Shit Together, and CNN’s guide to estate planning are great resources that guide you through more of the specifics. As always, if things get too complicated, don’t hesitate to contact an estate planner for help—most will offer you a free consultation.