What Does “It’s All Taken Care Of” Really Mean?

When parents tell their adult children, “It’s all taken care of,” regarding their end-of-life arrangements, what do they mean? Assuming they’ve worked with a competent estate planning attorney, they’ll have a will, perhaps a trust, and advance medical directives in place, with health care and financial power of attorney designees and back-up designees.

These elements, while vital, still fall short of taking care of everything. Consider these important often-overlooked aspects:

Funeral Plans and Costs

Have the parents put their funeral wishes on file with a funeral home and pre-funded those arrangements? If not, the shortfall to be covered could be $10,000 to $20,000 or more per parent. Funeral arrangements include the services of the funeral home for the transportation, care, and preparation of the body, completing legal forms and death notice paperwork, making funeral arrangements, the use of staff, facilities and vehicles, a casket or urn, and printed memorial programs.

However, these pre-paid funds for the funeral do not cover everything. Costs not under the funeral home’s control include obituaries, motorcycle escorts for processions, and out-of-pocket costs for a reception.

Cemetery costs for burial or a cremation niche are separate and in addition to funeral home costs. Expenses include the burial plot or niche space, opening and closing the grave or niche, a liner or vault for burial, and a memorial marker. This can add several thousand dollars or more to funeral plans.

Pre-paid funds may be placed in an irrevocable funeral trust to protect the money in case parents need to access Medicaid services. Access to additional funds, either in a payable on death bank account or insurance, will help ensure “It’s all taken care of.”

Death Certificates

The more complicated the estate, the more certified copies of the death certificate are needed. Certified death certificates are required to claim Social Security and life insurance death benefits, to access pensions, bank accounts, and investments (IRAs, stocks, bonds, 401-Ks, Treasury bills, etc.), and to sell property such as real estate holdings, automobiles, and boats. Credit card companies and other organizations will accept faxed or photocopied versions to process transactions.

Certified copies of death certificates are relatively inexpensive (depending on the state) when ordered while making funeral arrangements. Reordering may take a long time and often costs more, so parents should make sure to order enough while making pre-need arrangements with a funeral home. A simple estate may only need four certified copies, while a complex estate may need 20 or more.

A Master File of Documents

The many threads of a person’s life can be scattered all over. To be truly organized and “taken care of,” a secure Master File of documents is vital. Some people will set up a folder in a file cabinet, a designated drawer or box of information, or a binder with multiple sections.

In addition to estate planning documents, this Master File would include information about bank accounts, brokerage accounts, investment accounts, life insurance policies, beneficiary designations, locations of safe deposit boxes or other safes, deeds for real estate properties, automobiles and boats, stock and bond certificates (long-held paper securities), and monthly bills.

For business owners, heirs will need the Corporate, LLC, or Partnership paperwork, contracts, loans, leases, and business insurance information.

Digital Assets

The world is going increasingly digital. Photos, music, and videos may be stored on computers and smart phones of the deceased. In addition to an estate executor, many people will need a digital executor who understands computers and online accounts.

Managing digital assets also means addressing social media and the wide range of online accounts people set up. Heirs need to be able to access computers or other electronic devices to shut down online accounts. A Master File of user names and passwords is vital. It can be kept Old School-fashion on a paper spreadsheet in one’s Master File or in a secure online password vault with one master password.

Safe Deposit Box Safety

Don’t keep important papers in a safe deposit box. As soon as the bank finds out the owner is dead, it will be locked up until an executor is appointed. Spouses are usually allowed post-mortem access, but this policy can vary by bank. Keep important papers in the Master File at home.

To ensure access to safe deposit boxes post-mortem, hold the box jointly with a trusted relative or friend, or appoint someone a deputy on the box’s signature card at the bank.

Don’t Overlook Obituaries

Once a parent dies, the library is closed. Any family history or personal information children may want to know becomes off limits. My father-in-law wrote out a large collection of family history stories before he died. For that, I am grateful.

He also swore he would write his own obituary, something he never quite got around to doing. That was the one part of his funeral planning that was not “all taken care of.”

Providing for Pets

If parents have pets, have they made arrangements for the continued care of the animal after they’re gone? Most competent estate planning attorneys will inquire about pets and create a pet trust as part of the estate planning process. This requires identifying primary, secondary and even tertiary pet caregivers and providing funding for the animal’s care.

Questions/Comments

These are just a few key disregarded elements of end-of-life planning. What else would you recommend including in this list of overlooked items when parents say “It’s all taken care of”? Add your insights in the comment box below!

Gail Rubin, CT, is a death educator Certified in Thanatology: Death, Dying and Bereavement and a Certified Funeral Celebrant. Her newest book is Hail and Farewell: Cremation Ceremonies, Templates and Tips, a follow-up to her award-winning book A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die. She “knocked ‘em dead” at TEDxABQ with her talk on pre-planning for end-of-life issuesPhoto credit: Gail Rubin