I put some information together for a small group of friends and have been encouraged to share it with a wider audience. Hello wider audience. What follows is my personal advice.
As we go through the course of our lives, we do our best to live well. We read about and research subjects that pertain to living heathy and wisely. We are focused on living and planning our lives, as we should be. The thing is, life is 100 percent fatal. Nobody plans to die, but we all do; so we need to plan for death also.
We don’t know when we will die, so we should plan for it now. A quote attributed to Ben Franklin comes to mind… “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” You can’t take your stuff or your knowledge with you, but you can use the power of choice you have now to love, protect and provide for those who are left behind. These are not all fun things to do, but they are some of the most important decisions you will make. It’s responsible to have your affairs in order. Part of living well is planning well for the end of life.
Here are 10 things you have the power to do to finish life well.
1 Make End of Life Legal Decisions. Have a Last Will and Testament, a legal document stating your wishes. Without a will, those who love you may have a paperwork mess to deal with in addition to mourning your loss. Generally, wills help organize the chaos that death can bring. When making decisions, think carefully about the impact on others and the long-term consequences on those left behind.
Completing a will causes you to make important decisions such as who will handle your affairs after you are gone, who will care for any minor children, who will inherit your worldly goods, what you want to happen to your body (burial/internment or cremation), etc. Don’t make any assumptions about what will happen to your assets and material possessions if you die without a will. Each state has it’s own laws that regulate such decisions. Do an internet search for “what happens if you die without a will in (insert your state)”. OR, just get a will!
If you can afford it, have an attorney complete it to ensure it’s legality. If funds are tight, there are websites to create your own will. Ensure it is valid in your state, and have your signature observed and notarized. As personal property can be legally frozen/inaccessible temporarily after death, it is convenient to have two original wills, one stored in a secure place (like a bank safe deposit box) and one in your important papers at home where a close family member knows where to find it when it is needed.
Even if you think you don’t have any assets, a will allows you to designate who will handle your personal affairs, which avoids possible family conflict and/or someone having to be appointed as an estate trustee by the court.
While you are making decisions regarding your will, also complete a Health Care Directive/Living Will (which indicates what life-saving medical intervention(s) you desire in case of illness or accident) and Durable Power of Attorney (appoints who will make medical decisions for you if you are unable to do so yourself).
If you are elderly or have a serious illness, you may also want to have in place a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) form which is a shorter version of a Health Care Directive. It can be posted in your living space where it is visible to emergency personnel or home health care employees, and it can be quickly referenced in your medical records. These forms vary according to state, can be found online, and must be signed by a doctor.
2 Communicate your wishes. When you have made those important legal decisions, communicate them with trusted family or friend so there are no surprises when the time comes.
3 Make a list of your assets and/or debts. Include bank or business names and account numbers. Also include information about insurance policies and retirement plans (including pensions and annuities) from present and past employers. Take pictures of high value and sentimental items or heirlooms, from jewelry to furniture, and designate who you wish to pass them to. [This is a good time to take pictures of all possessions and entire rooms in your home for insurance purposes as well, if you have never done so.]
Put that list and important papers (birth certificate, marriage certificate, passport, etc.) in a bag or box and put it in a central place where it can easily be taken quickly in case of an emergency. We call ours our “grab and go bag”. Tell someone you trust where it can be found after you’re gone. Update the list about once a year.
4 Plan your service. This isn’t being conceited, it is helpful for your loved ones to know what you would want. This is your chance to choose special songs, scripture or communicate a message with others. Even designate pall bearers if you are to be buried. Again, organization creates calm.
5 Write your obituary. From doing family history and researching ancestry, I believe this is crucial. More than any other thing, it documents your existence with dates and places, linking you to parents, siblings and children all in one place. Write them for relatives and prepare your own for descendants. Include a picture as you want to be remembered and include affiliations to show your interests. Leave instructions for it to be published in a newspaper. It might seem expensive. Do it anyway. Click here for more information.
6 Write down facts for your family tree. Include names, dates and places of birth, marriage and death for all those you can, older and younger. Check with older relatives for the same information before opportunities pass. Record the list in more than one place to ensure its longevity. Click here for more information.
7 Label family pictures. Write names and dates on the back of all that you know. (Use a permanent photo marker because pencil fades, pen leaves imprints and regular markers smear.) Ask older relatives to help identify those you don’t know. While doing this, have a formal picture taken of your own present family and print it. With our advances in technology, today’s pictures are rarely printed and kept. Scan the old ones and print some new ones.
8 Leave memories. What have you invested in that will last long after your time here is done? Make notes, tell and write down meaningful or funny stories. Record messages to children/descendants, or even write your life story. Bless your family with a written faith experience or statement of what you believe and why. If time or creativity is short, it may be easier to buy and complete a fill in the blank grandparent book. There are many options to choose from. Assemble family recipes in one place and indicate who and/or where they came from.
9 Be the person you want to be remembered as. Who have you invested in? Financial assets will be appreciated by those they are left to, but your knowledge, experiences and personality are valuable now. Whether you lead a calm or chaotic life, pause long enough to consider how people will remember you after you are gone. What impression has your life had on others?
What you leave behind is your legacy. Dictionary.com describes legacy as anything handed down from the past, as from an ancestor or predecessor. Billy Graham says “The greatest legacy one can pass on to one’s children and grandchildren is not money or other material things accumulated in one’s life, but rather a legacy of character and faith.”
10 Plan your last trip. This is actually number 1. Know your destination. Click here for more information.
Tackle these steps one at a time. Enjoy the life you’ve been given here. While you’re doing it, plan for the time after it’s done. It will give you peace of mind and will be appreciated by those who love you.
As you run the course of your life, people will cross the finish line before you and after you; but you can be a winner when you finish. There are many things we cannot control, but at least 10 that we can. Whether the course is short or long, however rugged the path is, whenever and wherever it ends; what matters most after it’s done is how you ran and how you finished.