Creating Final, End-of-Life Instructions to Help Your Spouse

Regardless of whether you’re doing this for your spouse or another family member, it’s important to leave clear instructions on how you want your funeral and final financial matters handled. Since some of these issues can directly impact your heirs and beneficiaries, it’s best to meet with your lawyer so that every important topic is carefully addressed.

Prior to meeting with your Houston estate planning attorney, please gather together and review all the documents related to the topics referenced below. Once you arrive at your legal appointment, you and your lawyer can then discuss each of these topics in greater detail. The suggestions shared below are mainly based on ABA (American Bar Association) materials and a few online resources.

Addressing these financial matters can lessen your spouse’s (or executor’s) burdens

  • Pre-pay the costs of your burial/cremation – if you can afford to do so. Whenever possible, choose the simplest arrangements. You might want to note, in writing, that your surviving family members don’t need to prove their love by spending lavishly on either a funeral or memorial service. If you cannot pre-pay for everything, you should also address the topics noted in the next paragraph.

As your lawyer will remind you, funeral directors are normally required to provide you with a printed copy of all their costs. These lists can be useful for price-shopping. Also, warn your survivors to avoid letting funeral parlor employees who use guilt-inducing tactics. And if you’ve selected cremation, be sure that all costs involved are provided to your spouse ahead of time. Far too often, “hidden” costs are added later.

  • Create some type of emergency fund. Survivors often need extra money to cover unexpected last expenses If you haven’t converted a bank account to a POD (payable on death) status, do so now. Your lawyer can explain how this works in greater detail. Explain where such funds are being held in your letter of final instructions. While insurance policies usually pay off quickly to most beneficiaries, odd events can delay this process.
  • Make a list of all outstanding debts you know about, including all credit card accounts. Be sure to attach a list of all your assets and their present value. Also, state where all your banking and investment accounts are located, along with any IRAs.
  • Indicate where all important personal and family documents are kept, including your Will. Be sure to include all family birth certificates, your marriage license, any divorce decrees, adoption papers – or any prenuptial agreement. Likewise, note where you’ve put all insurance policies, business, bank and financial records – and 401k documents. Copies of all current pension and/or other benefit agreements should also be noted and their locations described.

And don’t forget to note where any house deeds, car titles or paperwork regarding vehicles still being paid off are located.

  • Ask your lawyer to help you create a “precatory” list of personal items. Stated simply, this is a list of personal possessions that you name and set aside for specific family members or others. These usually only have sentimental (and not financial) value.

While a precatory list isn’t often legally binding, it can help prevent dishonest family members from keeping all special keepsakes for themselves. As a recent AARP article noted, many families include individuals who are intent on defrauding everyone out of their fair share of cherished belongings – or any inheritance.

  • Be sure this final letter of instructions states how all your business interests and artistic property are to be handled. If you’re still a co-owner in a business, this may already be dictated by a contractual agreement. Take the time to review this document with your lawyer, so you can accurately state in your letter what business or control options might survive you. It’s always best to resolve such matters in writing, well before your death.

If you’re a celebrated artist of any kind, you should make proper arrangements for specific people – or perhaps an institution like an academic library or museum — to take formal possession, ownership and control of your artwork. This must be done in full keeping with all applicable copyright laws. (Try to fully explain these rights to your intended beneficiaries, long before you pass away).

Additional instructions (recommended by the American Bar Association)

The ABA suggests keeping a copy of your letter of final instructions with your Will and giving a copy of it to your lawyer. Be sure to ask your attorney to provide a copy of this letter to your surviving spouse (or other family members) immediately upon your death – in case they have lost their copy.

  • Note any specific information you want included in your obituary. This can include the naming of a charity you would like to have people give money to on your behalf. You can also ask that this money be given directly to your church or other house of worship.
  • Note where your safe deposit box is and place the key to it in the envelope with the letter, noting that it’s in there. You should also list your lawyer’s name and phone number, as well as the name and phone number of your executor.
  • Your current social security card and copies of all insurance policies. State where these are currently kept. Also, let your spouse or executor know if there may be a need for your family to renegotiate any aspect of their medical insurance coverage with your most recent employer after your death.
  • Contact information for key individuals. Create and attach a complete list setting forth the names, current addresses and phone numbers of all beneficiaries named in your estate documents, 401k plan and insurance policies.
  • Note the location of the last seven years of your tax returns.
  • Grief counseling advice. You might want to leave the specific name of a clinic or its therapists who might be able to offer counseling to your spouse. You can also suggest that your spouse check with the AARP to see whether that group currently sponsors any local support groups for recent widows/widowers.

Please feel free to schedule an appointment with one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can help you draft a final letter of instructions for your spouse, another relative — or your executor.