When my father died of a massive heart attack at the age of 54—without a will—I realized that hiring a professional to help me with estate planning could make all the difference to my family after I passed away.
I was driving when I got the call. I had to pull over to the side of the road to process the terrible news—and consider everything I would need to do to finalize my dad's estate.
As the closest living relative, I was suddenly charged with making arrangements for a man I didn't really know very well. It had only been in the last few years that my father and I had grown closer; our earlier years had been distant due to my parents' divorce early in my life and no real effort by either of us to change that fact.
The only information I had to start with was his address, and only a vague idea of what my next steps would be. As far as I knew, my dad hadn't made any preparations and there was no paperwork to help me understand what was going on. Dad was difficult to get along with sometimes, so he didn't leave me with a lot of options for support from friends or other family members.
There wasn't any real legal way I could have immediately proven that I was his daughter, so when I arrived at his apartment complex I had to charm the superintendent into giving me the key to his place. Thankfully, the super was a practical man and released the keys to me without incident.
I was a student and didn't have a lot of extra money to work with. Death, if you don't already know, is really expensive. There were bills to pay, rent to settle, and accounts to manage, and I had zero ideas on how to handle all of this. I hadn't even gotten to the part about how we were supposed to pay for his burial arrangements.
I didn't know where my father banked, what money he lived on, or what he wanted done with his belongings. Where was his social insurance number (SSN in the U.S.)? How would I find his will (if there was one)? Who should I contact about his death? And on top of everything else, all these people came out of the woodwork claiming possessions and money that I wasn't even sure existed.
In the end, I was able to work through everything by digging through paperwork, negotiating with banks, and contacting anybody who had their number scrawled down on a piece of paper my father had somehow managed to hold on to. I had to pull out some serious Sherlock Holmes, next-level gumshoeing to make it all happen, but I made it work.
It was a nightmare, it was heart wrenching, and it was completely unfair. The big takeaway for me was that I was never going to do this to someone I loved. I realized that even though I am still young and healthy, anything can happen at any time and the best thing I can do for myself and my family is to get my affairs in order while I have the chance.
My first step towards this goal is to get in touch with a good estate and trust lawyer to help me plan my will. While there are a lot of options for DIY estate planning, I don't feel great about relying on a one-size-fits-all set of forms to properly deal with all aspects of my estate. I know a professional will have questions that I won't even think to ask myself. I have family, property, a pension, investments, and debt to deal with, and I want a solid plan for how to manage it all. Even if I was younger and I didn't have all that stuff, I'd still want something in place to pay off my student loans.
For me, being a Grownup means understanding I need to build a team that will help me make the best decisions for me and my loved ones. A good lawyer is going to be one of those team members, so I'm willing to pay a little bit of money now and have some peace of mind later. I know I'll have to update it as my life changes, but it's important for me to get started now.
There are some things I could do for myself that will help with estate planning, though. I had a conversation with my husband about how we will handle things if one of us passes before the other. One of the worst things for grieving family members is having no idea what to do when someone they love dies. Having those discussions with my people goes a long way towards making it easier for them to answer these important questions with confidence if and when the time comes.
In addition, I want to keep my will, end of life instructions, and all of my financial information in one place so the documents are easy to find. I thought about renting a safety deposit box, but opted for purchasing a fireproof box to keep in a safe place.
I also bought life insurance so there is enough to cover the mortgage and all the debt, with enough money left over to cover my income for a couple of years. At first, I didn't know how big my life insurance should be, but after talking to a professional, I was able to decide on one that would cover everything and look after my family for a while.
Using a professional to make my estate plan was really the only way I could feel secure about leaving my loved ones. There is no single right way to answer the hard questions, but I'm happy with mine.