When you are gone, what will your family need? What will they need in those first days and weeks, those first months, while they struggle to accept the fact that you are not there to guide them?
Body Disposition Affidavit
In the first hours, they will need to know whether you have made plans to donate your body, your organs, your retinas to others or to donate your brain and part or all of your body to science. They will need to know where your pre-need funeral plan is. They will need a copy of your Body Disposition Affidavit.
These things can’t wait. Your retinas must be donated within three hours; your brain within six. If you die in an assisted living facility or nursing home, your body must be removed within 24 hours: there is no morgue on site.
Instructions for Funeral or Memorial Service
You can help your family through the initial shock by documenting what you want in this regard and by leaving instructions for your funeral or memorial service. My great aunt found it very comforting to have chosen the hymns she wanted. Other people have found it important to leave an obituary for their home town newspaper or a written or videotaped “ethical will” sharing life lessons with their loved ones.
Appropriate Accounts for Bill Payment
You can also make sure that the next month’s bills get paid. Even if your family obtains death certificates from the funeral home and hires a probate attorney the day after the funeral, it will take another two to three weeks for the executor to get into court and get legal control of your assets (longer if you do not leave a well-drafted and properly executed Will). Leaving money in an account held “pay on death” to the person who will be paying the bills or, if your spouse is healthy, joint with a right of survivorship, can ensure that bills get paid in the meantime.
Once your Will has been accepted for probate, the probate lawyer can apply for a family allowance to support your spouse and any dependent children for up to a year. This is important. Creditors have four months to present their claims to the executor. While your Will may permit your executor to make distributions before then, your estate’s circumstances may not.
You may think that all the initial expenses will be covered by life insurance. Life insurance companies generally pay within seven to ten days after receiving a death certificate – but sometimes can take a month. Death certificates are usually available at the funeral home – but these, too, can take a month to receive.
Sooner or later we must all leave our loved ones behind. But we don’t have to leave them in the lurch.
Estate planning attorney, Terry Garrett, serves on the board of the Texas Chapter of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is active in the Texas and Austin Bar Associations. She graduated with honors from Cornell University. She was on the Dean’s List at Wharton Business School. She earned her J.D. at Columbia Law School, receiving the Parker Award and a Mellon Fellowship.
She assists families of people with special needs, people planning for the retirement years and people administering estates.