Legacy: For Gosh Sakes Leave a Paper Trail

“Just a week later the man was dead, and after a short interval, Bernie screwed up the courage to go through his brother’s papers. ‘Riley,’ he told me later, ‘it was a disaster.’

Death. Okay, I just lost half of the small audience I had. The remainder are realists.

Some people are obsessed with the subject — like Woody Allen, for example, whose humor is peppered with references to dying. “It’s not that I’m afraid to die, “ he once said. “I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

He did a whole movie about death entitled Sleeper. It’s about Miles Monroe (Allen) who is cryogenically frozen and wakes 200 years later.   One of his first thoughts: The rent on his Manhattan apartment is 2400 months over due.

I am not so obsessed, but I am writing about death for two reasons. One is that a golfing buddy of mine died a while back. For more than ten years we played eighteen holes every Friday morning. His passing was nothing sudden; he and we all knew it was coming. Our foursome — he and we — were together for the last time at his memorial service.

I was never the most prompt member of the group, and at least once every few weeks my cell would ring as I was driving into the golf course parking lot, and it would be my friend saying, “Hey! Where are you? We’re ready to go.” I wish he had left those words on my voicemail. I would keep them there forever.

That’s one reason why death has been on my mind. But the main cause for this entry is because of the troubling experience of a good friend of mine, Bernie, which is not his real name. A while ago he went to visit his very sick brother who was a widower.

“Would you take care of my stuff after I go?” his ailing brother asked him. “Stuff” seemed a little too generic for Bernie, but the man was seriously ill so Bernie readily agreed. He told me that, as tactfully as he could, he asked his brother where all the information was that he would need.

“In the den,” he replied. “In the roll top desk and the filing cabinet.”

“What about the, ah, burial?”

“Cremation,” his brother said. “It’s all arranged and paid for.”

Just a week later the man was dead, and after a short interval, Bernie screwed up the courage to go through his brother’s papers.

“Riley,” he told me later, “it was a disaster. There were a dozen bank CDs, but some were outdated. There were insurance policies but no indication of which were still in force. There were passbooks and two credit union accounts whose last transactions were in 2006, and there were some stock certificates.   Riley, who in blazes keeps stock certificates anymore?” And no, there was no list of assets that he could find. There was a two-sentence handwritten will, which turned out to be quite legal.

(C) Comstock Klips

(C) Comstock Klips

Bernie is doing his best to sort all this out, but I doubt that everything will ever be resolved. “I know Mrs. R. is clued in to your finances, Riley, but you have kids too. For crying out loud, leave some organized records.”

Actually I had already done that. About ten years ago, after reading a magazine article on the subject, I created what I called Dave’s Contingency File on our mutual computer. It contains things to do (e.g., cancel my cell phone account), people to notify (our broker, Social Security, etc.), a list of all assets and liabilities, income sources (little though they are), locations of automobile pink slips, burial wishes, plus all the info that the nation’s newspapers, wire services, and TV networks will need for my obit.

Some of the info changes regularly — CDs roll over, amounts of banking accounts rise or fall, stocks are sold — so I update it regularly and print out a new copy for Mrs. R and our heirs every three or four months. Our estate is really quite modest, but I don’t want anybody befuddled by it after we’re gone.

If you don’t have such a file, you should make one as soon as possible.

Fortunately you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.   Some years ago a lady who gives Fiscal Fitness workshops at senior centers out our way, created a contingency file template for her two grandmothers. Today’s version of that template is on the web site of Age Well Senior Services, a marvelous organization in Southern California for which I have done occasional volunteer work. They operate ten senior centers, run a large Meals on Wheels program and have a fleet of vehicles that provides super low-cost transportation services so the elderly can get to medical appointments and other necessary places.

Go to the Age Well web site (www.myagewell.org), click on Senior Info, then click on Contingency Notebook. That will pull up a nineteen-page fill-in-the-blanks document that you can complete. And do this or make up your own soon, because you don’t want to leave your family in the lurch.

A huge note of caution: This is NOT a set-it-and-forget-it exercise. Just as the lawn needs regular mowing and the carpets need regular vacuuming, your contingency file needs regular tweaking. Each time you incur a new debt or pay off an old one, or when a CD rolls over, or when the bank that holds your home mortgage sells it to another institution, you need to update the contingency file and put on it quite prominently the date of the latest revision.

Two final notes about death, the first from Yogi Berra. “Always go to other people’s funerals,” Yogi said, “otherwise they won’t come to yours.”

The second is from Woody. “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work,” he said. “I want to achieve it through not dying.”

But everybody does of course, so make sure you’ve done what you can to spare your heirs the agony of trying to reconstruct the pieces of your life.

Dave Riley

About Dave Riley

Growing Old Isn’t For Sissies is about aging. It’s stories of how some older people achieve remarkable successes, how some people make the lives of others better, and how all seniors have hurdles to face — maladies, loss of loved ones and more.