Weather Updates

Don’t leave confusion behind after you’re gone

A cerfified financial planner reviews portfolio with client. | Brad C. Bower~AP File

A cerfified financial planner reviews a portfolio with a client. | Brad C. Bower~AP File

storyidforme: 31098384
tmspicid: 11354684
fileheaderid: 5188443

Updated: July 3, 2012 10:50AM

When someone we love passes away, the grief can be overwhelming. And it can be compounded by paperwork. Piles of it.

Sorting it all out amid the grieving process can be doubly daunting. Is there a trust or even a will? Where did Mom want to be buried — or cremated? What happened to Dad’s military pension? Who’s their attorney? Where are their bank accounts?

It doesn’t need to be that way.

To avoid the financial and emotional chaos, a number of families and money-management professionals rely on a one-stop system: a document, a binder — even a single desk drawer — that contains all the financial paperwork we inevitably leave behind.

“It makes it so much easier when people are under emotional stress that’s off the charts,” said John D. Winters, a Sacramento, Calif., investment adviser. Having one designated place containing a list of all the essential documents and contact information “is the best tool a financial planner can deliver for families. I have one for my family.”

The documentation should cover your financial life, everything from an inventory of your stocks, bonds and IRAs to insurance policies and military pensions — even your airline frequent-flier miles.

You can also include specific details such as what you want written in your obituary, who should take your pets and where you’ve hidden the key to the safe deposit box.

For most parents, the goal “is to make it as painless as possible for their children. You don’t want your kids to struggle to look for things when you’re gone,” said Sacramento estate-planning attorney Trudy Nearn. “By getting it all in one place, they get their kids ready to take over.”

And it can go far beyond monetary possessions.

“It’s not only what’s in your bank account, but what’s in your heart,” said Donna Pagano, a certified financial planner and co-author of the “Family Love Letter” (, a financial-planning booklet that includes sections to jot down your family history and remembrances.

Pagano, for instance, recommends leaving letters to your children. In the late 1990s, the Westlake Village, Calif., resident and her husband were devastated by the unexpected heart attack of a close friend, a father of two young children who would never know their dad. That prompted the couple to begin writing letters to their three children — all now in their 30s — during various stages of their kids’ triumphs and struggles. Pagano said her letters, which are intended to be read after she’s gone, recount her pride in who her children are and the choices they’ve made in life.

On the practical side, the documents can include funeral arrangements — or if you even want them. The Family Love Letter, for instance, includes space to insert the inscription you want on your tombstone and who you don’t want at your memorial service.

“I’ve had clients say they want their ashes scattered in the sand trap on the 17th hole of Pebble Beach,” said attorney Nearn, who puts everything in a binder for clients.

The process of sorting and documenting your financial life can ward off potential problems and yield unexpected benefits.

For instance, without a list of magazine or satellite-radio subscriptions, those contracts could continue dinging bank or credit-card accounts for months after you’re gone.

Pagano knows a woman who discovered that her mother had inadvertently renewed numerous magazine subscriptions through 2020. After her mother’s death, she called and got nearly $1,000 refunded.

“The sad thing is, the elderly often forget where they’ve hidden money,” said Pagano. “Tell somebody: your kids, your attorney. Write it down and lock up [the information]. At least let somebody know.”

For many clients, it’s a triggering event, such as the death of a spouse or parents, that focuses the survivors on gathering their own financial paperwork.

And quite often it’s women who initiate it, says financial planner Lilani.

“Women think about the emotional side of making sure it gets done right,” said Lilani. “Moms know their children are busy and want to make it easier. It’s another act of love.”

Scripps Howard News Service

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.