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Thanks for the money ... and the mess

Image: Suzy Hazelwood

Very few people talk openly about death. Not about the loss and the “Will you miss me?” neither about the practicalities of where you should look for what, once they can’t tell you where it is, or what they were thinking when they made some incomprehensible choices.

We prefer to not even engage with the possibility of a time that we won’t be, except in the abstract, and therefore talking about it is unthinkable and discussing the detail of our passing with people around us, maybe a bit too macabre for most.

Right now in this time of Corona, there is so much death around us. Maybe this could be a good time to have the conversation or get your paperwork in order. Whether you are at risk, or not.

This is not a blog akin to what financial planners and sellers of funeral policies tell you in their marketing material. It is not about fear of leaving your loved ones to foot the bill of the funeral and it is not meant to sound callous and uncaring. It is not even about the loss or bewilderment that you’re left with when someone dies unexpectedly.

This blog is about what I learned from having to clean-up after the sudden death of my ex-husband. Yes, that’s correct, ex-husband. Bizarre twist of fate. Full circle. Last laugh.

Some insights:

  1. Don’t assume that you know or even have the vaguest idea of what goes on in someone else’s mind.

  2. The way a person lives is a good indication of what you will have to deal with when they die.

  3. Be prepared that going into the deep recesses and bare bones of someone’s life might be uncomfortable, painful, sad and sometimes even a bit disturbing.

  4. If you can and if it is needed, restore dignity. For the sake of the living and the memory of the dead.

  5. A person has different lives and you might only be aware of what they were like in the life in which you played a part.

  6. Cleaning-up and sorting out, are physically, mentally and emotionally draining and carry on for much longer than you anticipated.

  7. Winding up an Estate is a time consuming, drawn out, costly and bureaucratic process.

Some practicalities:

1. In a sealed envelope addressed to someone you trust, have the following information:

  • The password to your computer

  • The passwords to any protected sites you use.

  • The password and pin to your phone

  • The pin to your bank cards and a list of all your bank accounts

  • A list of policies, investments, properties, pension funds, annuities, crypto currencies, loans to other people.

  • Please, please, please have updated beneficiaries on your policies. If a policy does not have a beneficiary or if the beneficiaries are no longer alive, the policy becomes part of the Estate, which means it will take much longer to pay out and it will incur extra costs or tax.

2. Have an updated Will. Your last Will stands. Even if it is 25 years old.

  • A Will must be signed by two witnesses and initialed on every page.

  • An unsigned Will is null and void. Not having a Will, is a mess.

  • Have a copy of the Will at home and the original with the Executor of your choice.

  • If your circumstances change, update your will. If your beneficiaries change, update your will.

  • If you are making huge changes to the beneficiaries of your will, have the grace and inform them. This will minimise family squabbles and nasty surprises that you are trying to avoid confronting now.

3. Be prepared for expected and unexpected costs.

  • Banks, or at least ABSA, regard any Estate above 200k as big and won’t let you move it to a different Executor.

  • I have yet to come across a funeral policy that pays out within 30 days.

  • A firearm search seems to be mandatory and you pay for that.

  • You can't just stop paying any domestic help and you might be really grateful for the extra pair of hands.

4. Deeply appreciate and treasure the grace and kindness of complete strangers. Treasure the stories they tell you of their interactions with your loved one. Be patient and kind even if you don't know them from a bar of soap. They too are grieving.

5. The people closest to you might surprise you most. Don't assume that you will be prepared for their reactions or behaviour. Make allowances for outbursts of anger or grief. Loss doesn't look the same for everyone. Only argue about what really matters to you and carefully choose the time and space.

Ps. I recently learned about Ethical wills and Legacy letters. The letters you write to the people close to you about how you would like to be remembered. It is a lovely idea and could be a huge comfort and inspiration after you are gone. Have a look

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