Here is What Happens When You Die and Haven’t Planned for It

Don’t let this be the first time your family learns of your wishes

“It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
–Woody Allen

I know that the idea of facing your mortality is a difficult one. Monkey Brain wants to think that he’s going to live forever, and few things are more certain to get him throwing bananas than to contemplate a world where he’s not around.

Yet, I’ve had friends in the past couple of years have to pick up the pieces when loved ones died unexpectedly and left them to pick up the pieces. From just trying to find the will to determining where all the assets were to clearing probate to spending months and months cleaning out random junk drawers just to ensure that no important documents went into the Dumpster, the failure to plan extended the sorrow and suffering for those who were left behind.

I’ve seen it in my own family. When my grandmother died, my aunt had to spend six months going through filing cabinets, stacks, and piles trying to piece together the story of not only my grandparents’ finances but also the important – both from a financial and a sentimental perspective – paperwork and artifacts to make sure that family heirlooms didn’t get squashed in the garbage truck.

It’s harrowing. It sucks.

The “beneficiaries” of the estate have just had a loved one pass away, a traumatic and wrenching experience itself, and they have to clean up a mess. Not only that, they have to take time away from their lives to do so.

All because of a failure to plan.

What happens when you step out in front of the beer truck?

If you’re married and you’ve been a dutiful spouse who works together with your love so that, every month, you’re going through the budget and the investments together, it shouldn’t be overly difficult to get everything transferred into the survivor’s name. That’s what happened when my grandfather died. My grandmother took the death certificate to the county and presto, changeo, everything was done. It was surprisingly easy for her.

If you’re the widow/widower and you pass without having appropriately planned, you introduce chaos into your kids’ or siblings’ lives.

First, they have to deal with the shock that you’re gone. Then, slowly, they have to start piecing everything together. How to get into the house? Where should they look for documents? What about the step parent? Should he/she claim spousal death benefits on Social Security or not? Was there insurance? Who was the beneficiary? What about retirement plans? Pensions? Who gets Aunt Myrtle’s Wedgewood china? Do they bury you? Cremate you? Put you in an urn?

They have to fly in and try to figure things out. They usually have only planned to take a week off from work before going back in. If your life was a mess, there’s no possible way they can get everything done in a week. There’s probate, mail, correspondence, bills, banking, and a ton of other items to sort out all while planning and then going to a funeral.

They’re left flailing and frustrated and probably a bit angry that Mom or Dad couldn’t get their affairs in order and have left it all to the kids.

Is that the memory you want to leave?

Estate planning is, for a vast majority of people, not difficult, and it’s very important. Some in the industry want to make it this big, vast, dark secret so they can charge you thousands of dollars to do. Yes, if you’re extremely wealthy, then it probably does require several thousands of dollars and lots of attorney hours to make sure you have an adequate estate and trust plan.

For the rest of us, it’s not nearly that difficult.

Be a responsible adult. Get your act together. Organize your affairs and leave detailed instructions so that when you forget to look left, then right, then left again before stepping out in front of the beer truck, a loved one knows what to do and doesn’t have a months-long burden of putting your old life together again.

Will your kids be left to pick up the pieces, or have you put your affairs in order? Let’s talk about it in the comments below!

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Jason Hull was the co-founder of Broadtree Partners, a firm that acquires $1-5MM EBITDA companies. He also was the co-founder of open source search consultancy OpenSource Connections, a premier Solr and ElasticSearch firm. He and his wife FIREd (financial independence retire early) at 46 and 45, respectively. He has a BS from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a MBA from the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business. He held a CFP certification from 2015 - 2021. You can read more about him in the About Page. If you live in Johnson County, Texas or the surrounding areas, he and his wife are cash buyers of Johnson County, Texas houses.

2 thoughts on “Here is What Happens When You Die and Haven’t Planned for It

  1. Thank goodness for “payable on death” and “transfer on death” beneficiary designations. That simplifies part of the problem.

    Almost as harrowing as death: disability. Whether by dementia, illness, or injury, the family has to shoulder the caregiver burden as well as the rest of their affairs.

    I wish revocable living trusts were just as accessible as basic wills. RLTs handle all the finances during incapacity, and far better than “durable” powers of attorney. After dealing with dementia in two generations of my family, our next estate-planning update is going to include a RLT for our generation.

    1. If only POD/TOD worked on houses and all of the stuff in them.

      I actually think that disability and debilitation is more harrowing than death. Death is one-time and permanent (hello, morbid thoughts!), whereas disability/debilitation can last for years and years and is an emotional drain each and every day.

      I’m not sure that RLTs are what you’re looking to use to solve the incapcitation issue. They are part of it, but if you forget to transfer something into the RLT, you’ll need a power of attorney for someone to manage those assets and affairs lest you get caught up in a court guardianship determination. RLTs are a decision that individuals and families can make based on their circumstances, but a springing durable power of attorney is, to me, a necessary requirement.

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