So as you may have read, my mother-in-law passed around Labor Day. She lived in a little apartment in Shadyside, and for the most part I've been taking on the task of moving her belongings out of there while my wife understandably builds up the strength to even go near the place so soon after.
I can thankfully say I haven't done this too often. The last time someone close to me died and I was involved in the demolition process was when my grandfather passed away about ten years ago. Comparing the two events, I must say that cleaning up my mother-in-law's stuff has been a piece of cake. She was a woman of simple needs. She had no car. No home ownership. Not much furniture. Oddly enough the one thing she had the most of in life was televisions. Why a single woman in a small apartment without cable TV needed four TV's I'm not sure. But regardless, I thank the woman for making the process relatively painless.
Throughout the process (which still continues), I have found myself thinking quite a bit about what I would do to better avoid putting this sort of burden on my family members if I knew the end was near. So, I guess it's time to put things in writing. Bear in mind that none of these ideas relate specifically to my mother-in-law or my grandfather. They are simply thoughts that popped into my head.
1. Take some time to clean out your closets. Closets are the absolute worst when it comes to this sort of shovel-out. 90% of what's in the average closet could have been thrown out years ago. 5% is something you thought you should save, and tossed in a closet never to be seen again. And the remaining 5% is perhaps of interest to someone.
2. Don't save greeting cards. My grandparents saved every one they ever received. Those cards may have meant a lot to them. They meant nothing to us except an extra trip to the trash bin.
3. Get your files organized. NOW. A close relative should have a complete list of your accounts, credit card numbers, insurance policies, safety deposit box locations, etc. There's plenty of articles out there about what to do...do it now.
4. Make sure someone knows your passwords. The previous item is something everyone knows. But I think new on the list is to have a way of letting the person in charge of safekeeping of your documentation know where to find your passwords to important systems such as Quicken, or to your bank website. This is especially true if you are the only spouse that pays the bills. I often think about how I use Quicken to pay everything and, if I were to be gone, my wife wouldn't know the first thing about even starting the program up.
5. Got something weird in your drawers, something you don't want people to see? Get rid of it.
6. If you own something that is of value or has meaning to the family, but that value might not be obvious to the naked eye, make sure to document. For example, if that little statue of the baby Moses on the mantle was carried by your great-great-great uncle Moishe on his back as he walked from Poland to New York (I'm just sayin'), then make sure someone knows it before tossing it on eBay or, worse yet, in the trash. If it's VERY valuable, mention it in the will. If it's just something you feel would be meaningful to someone, write it down and give it to the person in #3. On the other hand, don't go nuts. I have a friend who's mom thought she had an incurable tumor (she got better). Once she heard the bad news, she went around the house with a post-it pad bequeathing every last item in the house to one relative or another. Now that she's better, they are STILL finding post-its on everything down to the Pyrex cookware.
7. Pay for as much of your burial proceedings as you can in advance. Buy a cemetery plot. Take out an insurance policy that covers the burial fees. The only thing worse than having to bury a loved one is having to bury one and THEN deal with around ten thousand dollars in fees.
8. Make sure someone knows who your estate lawyer is. The lawyer should have copies of your will (you DO have one of those, right?) and will be able to make the whole process MUCH easier.
9. If you rent, make sure someone knows the terms of your lease. Currently we're dealing with a landlord who thinks he has the right to charge us a "termination fee" of several months' rent. That's not what the lease says. But the lease was written by a FORMER building owner. Currently the lawyer is working that one out.
10. If you have IRA's and annuities, it's important to be aware of the tax implications upon your death. Your survivors will have several different options for withdrawing the month to work around tax obligations. I say discuss those things now!
11. Do NOT save years' worth of bills and paperwork. It just confuses matters. Just as an example, my mother-in-law had an investment account back in the 80's with one company. In the 90's she switched to a different company. Around 2005 she switched again. She saved all the paperwork from all three accounts. The only way I could tell the first two accounts were not in existence was to call the investment companies, one of which no longer existed. That wasted a couple of hours. Keep all your current paperwork organized in one place, and list all current accounts on that document you're going to prepare for the person safeguarding your information.
12. Wanna have a little fun? If you know you're going to check out soon, toss some cash in your clothing pockets. The fact is that when emptying out the closets, your survivors will need to go through every article of clothing to make sure you didn't stash your diamonds in the pocket of the coat you last wore in 1984. And that's really boring. Might as well make it interesting for them, and toss a couple of bucks in here and there. Funny story related to that. Before my grandfather died, he took several thousand dollars in cash out of the bank before a trip to Florida. The money disappeared. He swore the housekeeper stole it, until the day he died. When we cleaned out his closet. Guess what we found? The cash, in the original bank envelope, in a jacket he decided he no longer liked.