As a daughter who recently lost her mother, it’s hard to describe how deeply the condition of my mother’s estate impacted me. This is the grand, final gesture of love and care that you extend to your loved ones. It is a loud echo that can leave them comforted by your lullaby in the depth of their grief and on through the years. Or abandoned – overwhelmed, lost, and resentful. Abandoned is a strong word that may seem odd in the case of a death but it really fits. This legacy work can leave your children feeling mothered by you through the transition and long after you’re gone. Yes, a childhood full of love and lessons are obviously impactful, but this practical piece is a life raft of tangible evidence of your forethought for their well being. And I’m actually not even talking about quantity of money. I am passionate about intentional personal finance but you can set up your estate, however big or small, at any level. It’s not the dollar amount, but the preparation that communicates a legacy of love.
Sit down with an estate attorney and pay to have a legal will drafted. Without this document, your children will go into foster care and the government will take all your money. It will cost you over $1000, but it is worth every penny.
For any Washington families reading this, we connected with Hillary Dawn and had a much more enjoyable experience than anyone has any business having drafting a legal document. She likes sci-fi/fantasy, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and long walks on the beach (I made up that last one). We walked away with a legally binding will, for a reasonable price, with a deep sense of peace.
We created a will that legally supports the execution of our wishes for our estate upon our death but our loved ones need simple instructions, in plain English, with specific details that a will cannot provide. So I created a document where our children, guardian, and executor can read through exactly what they need to do, in our own words.
Assets: We started with the best part: assets! Your assets are your treasure and these instructions are the treasure map. We listed all of the valuable things our children will inherit and exactly how we want them handled.
Money: Detailed instructions for how our guardian and our children are to handle the money they receive.
House: Address and instructions for what to do with our house.
Cars: Makes, models, and instructions for what to do with our cars.
Belongings: A reminder that it’s just stuff along with specific endowments for some special belongings (jewelry, wedding dress, etc.) and permission to sell or donate the rest. (The wedding ring pictured above is something I inherited from my mother.)
Digital Files: Locations and instructions for accessing and saving all of our family’s documents and photos (which are all digitized and organized!).
Bank Accounts: Bank and account numbers. Be sure your children are listed as the beneficiaries on all of your accounts!
Launching Funds: Bank and account numbers along with our detailed plan for our children to attend college on these funds, if they desire.
Retirement/Investment Accounts: Brokerage and account numbers.
Life Insurance: Company and account number.
Liabilities: We’re debt free!!! But most people aren’t and if you have any debts that will need to be paid out of your estate, list them here.
Beneficiaries: We state that our assets are to be divided equally among our 3 children.
Executor: We name an executrix (or executor, if male) for our estate. This is the person who manages the distribution of all of our assets. A trusted, fiscally responsible loved one or the same person you’ve chosen as a guardian for your children.
Guardian: We name a guardian for our children.
Health Care Proxy: We name a person who will make health care decisions for us if we are both incapacitated. Again, these may all be the same person, or not.
Letters: We explain that we have written letters to the children (more on this below) and state the the physical and digital location of these letters.
Will: We state the physical and digital location of the will.
Legal Documents: We state the physical and digital location of our legal documents (more on this below).
Funeral Instructions: We state what we want for our remains, funerals, and final resting places.
Accounts: We list our online accounts along with instructions for accessing them and what to do with them.
Money In: We list all sources of incoming money along with instructions for accessing them and withdrawing funds. For example, PayPal.
Money Out: We list all sources of regular deductions from our accounts along with instructions for accessing them and what to do with them. For example, utilities.
Medical: We list the children’s doctors and support professionals along with phone numbers and a brief summary of their medical needs.
Educational: We state how we would like our children educated and include instructions for meeting legal requirements and accessing previous legal documentation.
Needs/Routines: If your children are little, consider adding information you would want their guardian to know to better care for them. At 13, 10, and 7, my kids are all old enough to communicate their needs, but at 1, 4, and 7, I would have wanted to include more care taking details.
Extended Family: We list the names, relationships, and phone numbers of our extended family.
Friends: We list the names and phone numbers of our chosen family.
My husband and I included letters to our family, in our handwriting, to read in the event of our death. These letters can be difficult to write so if you’re feeling blocked or avoiding the task, remove the pressure to say it all and just write one sentence or one paragraph. Talk about how you see them (who they are through your eyes), share a treasured memory, tell them what you hope about you stays with them, and sign it with love. Your relationship will speak for itself; this is just something tangible to anchor the memories. Scan it, save it, and note the file location in the instruction document. You could also make a quick little video and include the digital location of it in your instruction document.
4. Legal Documents
Stored in the same file box as the documents above (and also backed up digitally) are file folders containing all of our other legal documents that a guardian would need (birth certificates, car titles, passports, etc.). You can read more about this here. We showed our executrix and our older children where this box is located. Some people choose to secure these documents in a locked, fireproof safe and I’m not mad at that at all, though they need to be easily accessible (I find myself needing these legal documents on a regular basis). And if you do lock down this folder, be sure your people know how to open it.
While not something you include in the legacy file, going through every nook and cranny of your belongings and letting go of everything that is not used or treasured is essential (In Sweden, they refer to this as a “Death Cleaning.”). Ask yourself, “Will my children want to inherit this?” and be brutally honest. Every ounce you store is weight your children will be burdened with carrying after you’re gone. This is your formal invitation to engage in a grand culling of the belongings in your estate. If the thought of cleaning out those sentimental corners overwhelms you, read this post, where I walk you through all the details of my process doing this work.
I spent my whole life attempting to supportively invite and encourage my mother to simplify her belongings. In later years, I got increasingly assertive as I began to fear for her safety living alone in a home with that volume of precariously stacked stuff she clung to. To be clear, her humble home was lovely. But opening a drawer, cupboard, closet, or garage resulted in an avalanche. I was never successful in my efforts, and in the immediate aftermath of her tragic death, I was forced to spend weeks digging my way out of a lifetime of accumulated items, which spurred inter-family drama and personal trauma that rivaled her actual passing. She kept every piece of paper she ever touched. Decades of personal letters and insignificant receipts were interspersed with precious childhood photos. The process was brutal and painful and filled me with feelings of anger and resentment that clouded the tremendous love and care she provided while living. Yes, that benign stuff sitting in the dark corners of your home has that much power.
I know it’s not fun to put energy toward preparing for your death. I get it. But none of us knows what tomorrow holds. If you and your parter get hit by a bus tomorrow, will your children be swept into an extension of your legacy of love and care or will they be lost in a mess feeling abandoned? After living this out as an adult with the passing of my mother, I felt panic at the reality that I had not prepared for the care of my children in a world without me in it. Now I feel such a deep sense of peace. My legacy of love and care will live on for my children beyond my body. What a gift.