Remember fire drills when you were in school? An alarm goes off. There’s a certain sense of panic, but you walk — in an orderly fashion — to the exit and meet your classmates outside. The teacher takes attendance, the coordinator makes sure everyone is accounted for, and then you go back inside. Most students probably think fire drills are a waste time, and surely teachers would prefer to not have their lessons interrupted while their students go outside. So why do we have fire drills? Obviously, to make sure we know what to do if a real fire occurs. Because if there is a real fire, there can be dire consequences if you don’t have a plan.
For similar reasons, we encourage our clients to conduct a “fire drill” regarding their estate plan. In other words, pretend you have died and walk your family through the process of what they must do to set your affairs in order. Surviving spouses or children are often consumed by grief and/or shock after the passing of a loved one. It can be hard enough getting up every morning, much less handling the administration of an estate. By organizing your estate plan and going through regular “fire drills,” you can make things that much easier on your family after you are gone.
So what kind of topics should you cover during your “fire drill”? We suggest you consider discussing at least the following:
- Location of a written calling tree (a list of family to be called at death).
- Location of a list of advisors (e.g., lawyer, accountant) and why they should be called.
- Location of your written funeral/burial plans.
- Location of your trust, will, durable power of attorney, advance directive, and other legal documents.
- Location of your safe deposit box key or safe combination.
- Location of your password vault or other information on passwords and passcodes (including information for any online accounts or other digital assets).
- Directions on how you wish to see personal items disposed of at death.
- Who you are placing in charge at your death or incapacity and why.
- Your thoughts/concerns on the use of artificial life support, including artificially administered nutrition and hydration.
- A “short list” of places you would suggest for your living or care if you are unable to continue living at home.
- A list of accounts, subscriptions, or other services that should be paid or discontinued.
In addition to doing a “live” fire drill in-person, we also recommend creating a letter of instruction that outlines, step-by-step, what must be done upon your death. Once prepared, review it regularly with your nominated personal representative or successor trustee. This will then allow them to ask questions and allow you to refine your instructions to make them as clear as possible. You will find that a good letter of instruction is not something you can write in a few minutes.
For years when I was young, my father would carry a large, gray, metal strongbox and place it on the kitchen table. It was his “fire drill” box containing important documents and other information. My mother and I would sit at the table with him while he explained each of the files in the box. As I got older, my mother avoided these drills, but I attended them dutifully. When my father died, I placed that same strongbox on my office table and laughed: I knew exactly what to do because we had gone over it so many times. There was no stress, no strain, no anxiety.
Most people want their family to be at peace after their death. A “fire drill,” as well as a well-written letter of instruction, can assist with that process and make things easier on your family during what will undoubtedly be a trying time in their lives. Addressing these matters is never easy or fun, but it is wise to set your affairs in order today. Tomorrow could be too late.
[As with all our posts, the contents of this article do not constitute legal advice and are subject to our site-wide disclaimer.]