At the end of 2012, my partner died suddenly. He was 40, I was 37, and our two kids were only three and six. His death from a rare heart condition was a devastating shock. But so was the matter of closing out his estate, something I assumed we were decades away from having to address.
In addition to being blindsided, our situation was somewhat complicated by a few other things: While we had been a couple for 10 years, had two kids together, and were registered domestic partners, we weren’t legally married. My partner didn’t have a will, life insurance, or any instructions about administering his affairs.
Dealing with things like paying his bills, filing his taxes, and accessing his bank account were not only emotionally exhausting and anxiety inducing, but expensive and complicated. Ultimately, I had to be court appointed the voluntary administrator of his estate and, separately, the financial guardian of my own children in order to transfer his bank account to them. (It now sits in an account they can access only when they reach 18.)
A year and a half after my partner died, so did my mom. My parents were on top of things, and there was a huge difference between my dad’s experience and mine. He finished dealing with my mom’s estate long before I finished handling my partner’s — and my mom had far more assets.
All of this could have been made a lot easier had we just put some fairly basic paperwork in place. And while some of it’s doubly important if you aren’t married, most of it is needed even if you are. Here are the five major things that I wish we had done before my partner’s death.
1. Draw Up Wills
This is so obvious, but so important. Contrary to popular belief, the state will not automatically seize your property if you don’t have a will. But dying “intestate” (without a last will) sure can make things messy by forcing someone to go through the complicated process of becoming a “voluntary administrator” of the estate.
So what should you consider when you actually sit down to do your will? Obviously, you want to think about where your assets will go, but a key aspect for parents is to establish a guardian and a trustee, in addition to an executor.
The guardian is the person responsible for making decisions for any minor children in the event that both you and your partner die. (This is not necessarily the person the child will live with, but it can be.) The trustee handles any money or trusts — it’s best if these are separate people. The executor should be someone you trust will make sure that your wishes are carried out.
Though they won’t go in a will, it’s a good idea to write letters to the guardians — to be read only in the event of your death. Like your will, these letters should be updated as your children get older and their needs change. These letters aren’t legally binding, but they help your guardian know what you want.
A lot of people think they need a lawyer to draw up wills, but it’s far better to make one on your own than not to do it at all. After her husband died suddenly in an accident, Chanel Reynolds started Get Your Shit Together, a website designed to help people organize their affairs. She says that people with $1 to $2 million in assets, custody issues, international citizenship, or who own a business should seek out legal help to write a will. But for “many, many people it can take a few hours and be free to a few hundred dollars,” she says. You can make wills on your own at Do Your Own Will and Willing.com.
2. Make a Living Will and Assign a Health Care Proxy
Health care proxies (also called durable medical powers of attorney) deal with medical issues that arise while you’re alive but unable to make decisions (for instance, if you are unconscious). Living wills, on the other hand, usually deal with end-of-life decisions. Both are important.
Being married doesn’t automatically mean that you will have the final word on your spouse's health care or vice versa. (Think about the awful Terri Schiavo situation in Florida: After she spent years spent in a persistent vegetative state, Schiavo’s husband and her parents were in court fighting over her care.) And in most places, if you aren’t married, you have no rights regarding a partner’s medical decisions at all.
My partner died so suddenly that having a health care proxy wouldn’t have made a difference in my specific situation. But as his sudden death showed me, life-altering events can strike at any time and you shouldn’t wait for a specific event like a pregnancy, scheduled surgery, or the onset of a disease to do this. So before you put this on the back burner, ask yourself if you really want your parents or your partner’s parents (or the state!) making serious medical calls. If not, put it in writing.
3. Buy Life insurance
My partner and I were working on this before he died. I had a policy from work, and at my partner’s urging, we met with a broker to get additional life insurance. My policy came through without a problem, but the insurance company requested more information from him. Unfortunately, he didn’t get around to providing this before he died. As a result, we didn’t get any insurance payout. You know what I learned from this? Always follow up.
4. Assign a Digital Power of Attorney
As more and more of our lives become virtual, having a digital power of attorney (POA) is becoming increasingly important. That’s because you don’t own your digital assets in the same way you own your physical property. Some things we think we own (like photos we post on Facebook) may not actually belong to us once they’re put online. A digital POA assigned in a legally binding document gives you a better shot at having all your digital money, digital assets, digital IP, and social media accounts left to your beneficiaries. Luckily, my partner was working with my uncle, who shared access to his professional website and bank account. But for a lot of families, especially for those who have an online business presence, being locked out of a digital life can be catastrophic.
5. Get Access
After my partner’s death, I realized that our privacy around our passwords and PINs was actually a real problem. At one point I became desperate to find a photo of him and the kids on his computer, but I couldn’t access it since the computer was password protected. Thanks to some serious sleuthing I eventually managed to crack the code. That was a huge relief, but I still had no access to things like bills that were in his name, our Netflix account, or any of his online profiles.
Sharing passwords is personal and it simply isn’t right for some couples. One option is to use a service like Legacy Locker, which can securely hold on your passwords until your death and then release them to the people you designate. You might also want to come up with a shared password for benign things like your Amazon and utility accounts. At the very least, you should know the location of each other’s official documents, like birth certificates, marriage certificates, and SSN cards. You also should be on top of any financial information, bank accounts, mortgages, credit cards, or investments that you hold jointly. This is especially true if you don’t manage many (or any) of the finances in your partnership.
Imagining you or your partner dying young can make you anxious and uncomfortable, and planning for something that seems so unlikely is not always on the top of our lists. But ignoring the fact that it’s possible will only make your situation that much worse if the unthinkable happens. Getting just a few things in order can make a world of difference.
Originally from Canada, Ellen Friedrichs is a health educator (and mom) based in New York City, where she teaches high school and college classes, is a contributing writer at everydayfeminism.com, and runs About.com’s LGBT Teens website. Find more of her writing here and follow her on Twitter @ellenkatef.