By Brendan Daly
I last saw my father on February 25th at his condo in Rhode Island. We had a wonderful day together—he showed off his new Subaru in a slightly harrowing ride, where he coasted through stop signs (aka the “Rhode Island slide”)—and I took my leave of him as he stood at the door waving while I drove away. When Dad didn’t make the 7:30 Monday morning Mass, his friends knew something was wrong, and I soon received a call at work that he had passed away at home.
I couldn’t process this news because I had just seen him. He looked healthy and was in good spirits. I inspected his bike to ensure it was safe for his planned rides with the “Old Spokes Club.” And he had just bought a new car. My father was the most frugal person I’ve ever known, and he would never have purchased a new car if he thought he might soon depart this world. He even left a plate of cooked spaghetti on the kitchen counter that he planned to eat for dinner–after attending to his last chore of taking out the trash. So none of us, including Dad, expected his sudden passing.
But Dad buttoned up his affairs nicely. He left a thick envelope titled “Bill’s Funeral” (lest we confuse this with someone else’s funeral…and why Bill rather than Dad, we don’t know) on his dresser, the contents of which included his prepaid funeral agreement, his own typed obituary (titled “Bill’s Obit”), and a heart-wrenching “Farewell” letter to my sisters and me. He included a list of his financial accounts with online usernames and passwords and a small notebook containing login credentials for every possible entity—from Dunkin Donuts to Dollar Tree—dating to 1995. And his phone was unlocked (along with his condo and car) so we could receive codes texted from the financial institutions to access the accounts.
Dad’s decision to prepay for his funeral made the trip to the funeral home more bearable. My sisters and I visited the funeral home director, David, the day after Dad passed. We worked with David when my brother-in-law and mother died, which was a painful experience in both cases. The process this time was not as emotionally draining. We didn’t need to pick out a casket (David seemed deflated when we passed at the chance to see the “elegant blonde casket” Dad picked out), prayer cards (“your dad said no picture of him on the card”), scripture verses for the readings at Mass, or even the hymns. Dad nailed down every single detail. We took liberty with the obituary, though. What he wrote came off like a bland resume, so we touted some of Dad’s accomplishments and expressed what a kind, humble man he was. And we included a picture. David questioned our judgment on this point, considering Dad’s wishes regarding the prayer cards, but we persevered.
This writing should be instructional—not a tribute to my father—so what’s the lesson here? Plan for your family’s sake. For twenty-five years, I’ve advised clients to prearrange for funerals when applying for Medicaid (always) or if it would put their minds at ease. But after experiencing this myself, I suggest you consider doing so for your family because it makes it easier for them.
As for the other housekeeping items: Leave a list of accounts with passwords—preferably in a secure medium rather than on a piece of paper as Dad did. Include social media accounts, like the Legacy feature, if you have a Facebook account. My father did not do this, so his Facebook account continues perpetually. On that same list, include the passcode for your phone. Do not leave the phone unlocked! The most challenging and personal decision is to leave a farewell letter. There is no right or wrong approach here, but I’ll always treasure what Dad wrote.
As for the estate plan, Dad did not have a large estate but titled his home and investments in his revocable living trust to avoid probate. Alas, we still ended up in probate because he owned 45 shares of MetLife stock following the company’s demutualization some twenty years ago. So look at your 1099s to ensure your dividends are associated with life insurance, not stock shares. A handful of life insurance companies demutualized over the years, issuing stock shares to the policy owners, which would trigger probate. You can sell the shares or work with the transfer agent to assign a beneficiary. Dad would have sold his 45 shares if he had known he owned the stock.
Lastly, consider purchasing the plot and a monument if you intend on a burial. For ten years, I looked at Dad’s name on the headstone next to Mom’s, which read “William J. Daly, March 16, 1942 –” I only needed to call the company and pay to etch the date of death. Dad visited Mom’s grave daily for over ten years and placed artificial flowers in the vases attached to the headstone, rotating them every season. He left these flowers behind for us to follow suit, of course.
That is not to say that this has been easy. I am the trustee, and there is considerable work to do, but that is irrelevant compared to the emotional impact. A friend told me that after losing both parents, a child is part of a club where nobody wants to be a member. We rallied around Dad when Mom died in 2012, but now a tremendous void remains. Because as I wrote in his obituary, Dad was a kind and gentle soul who loved everyone. Ok, this was also a tribute. But Dad was the most remarkable man I ever knew, so he deserves it.