An Open Letter from an Unprepared Executor

On October 3, 2014, my closest friend died. She left me as the executor of her will, a task I had lightly assumed some years before. At the time, I had no idea what it meant. But everything in her life was about to land squarely in my lap in ways I had never anticipated.

This was the simplest estate possible — so tiny it didn’t need to go through probate. She was unmarried and had no children and no property. She did, however, have two elder cats, an apartment full of tattered lifestuff, and a complicated will with sometimes contradicting bequests. She also had hidden debt and almost no assets.

I promised then that after the dust settled (which took about four months), I’d put my own house in order. No matter your age or circumstances, your death will leave somebody a whole lot of work. Is that what you want? Most of us would say no, but haven’t done anything about it. 

I’m inviting you to learn from my hard-earned lessons.

1. Choose an executive and make a will naming your executor and heir(s), and have it properly witnessed and notarized. If you own a home or have investments or savings, have a lawyer draft your will. 

2. Record and safely store all account names, user names, email addresses, passwords, and PINs. Tell your executor where and how to access this information.

3. About the body. The kindest thing you can do for your survivors is be specific about your funeral preferences. If you can afford it, invest in a burial plan. 

4. Don’t burden your survivors. Long lists of unrealistic bequests create chaos. One option is to leave the entire estate to one heir in a bare-bones will. Then leave the heir a letter asking that the heir give certain items to certain people. 

5. If you care about it, write it down. I’ve spent the better part of a week planning my memorial service in detail, writing my own obituary (a custom in journalism, my chosen profession), listing everything my husband and the executor should do in the days just after my death, drafting a new will, and more. I also gave my husband written permission to chuck the whole memorial plan if he didn’t feel up to it or found it in impractical. 

6. Give now. Consider making your life gifts — remembrances and things you cherish, but don’t need in order to live comfortably — in person. Invite a grandchild over and give her Grandma’s locket with a story about how you received it. Make a gift now to a charity that you would otherwise include in your will. 

7. Anticipate difficulties. When you name someone who can legally act for you, you greatly lessen the burden on loved ones. You’ll need power of attorney and joint or trust accounts. Only you can decide who to trust with these legal arrangements. 

All adults should grant a trusted loved one a medical power of attorney, which allows the person named to make health-related decisions for you if you’re incapacitated. A full power of attorney, much more comprehensive, allows a person to act for you in all matters if you lose the ability to manage your own affairs. 

8. Finally, nurture your relationships. This not only makes for a richer life, but allows you to identify who you can trust to have your best interests at heart when you face the end of life.

Some people consider what I’ve been doing morbid, but remember the words of Rose Castorini (Olympia Dukakis) to her philandering husband in the movie, Moonstruck: “Cosmo, I just want you to know no matter what you do, you're gonna die, just like everybody else.”

This article reflects one person’s experience and is not meant to replace legal advice.