There are so many ordinary busy days that it’s hard to plan for the moment when, as Chanel Reynolds describes it, “your life goes sideways.” Like most of us, she wasn’t prepared when it happened.
The sun was shining as she discussed weekend logistics with her husband, Jose, then took their 5-year-old son to a friend’s barbecue while Jose went on a training ride before a bicycle race. The sun was still shining when she pulled out her phone and saw dozens of missed calls from numbers she didn’t recognize. The short, bewildering messages that “something happened” said nothing and said it all.
On that summer day more than six years ago, Jose suffered fatal injuries on his ride. “We’d done about half of the planning, but it makes you feel like an asshole for thinking, ‘Oh, crap — we haven’t updated our life insurance in five years,’” Reynolds says. “Our story is unusual. However, everybody has or will someday experience a trauma or loss. And it turns out most of us in this country are living one accident or illness away from financial ruin.”
Fact: More than 50 percent of adults in the U.S. do not have wills.
Another fact: One-third of working adults in America will be disabled at some point, meaning they will be out of work for three months due to injury. For parents, living without a plan for “what if” could have grave implications one day.
After putting her own life back together, Reynolds wanted to help make “hard times perhaps just a little softer” for others. Her website, Get Your Shit Together!, aims to help other people take care of life- and death-planning tasks before the unexpected happens. We have full plates as parents, and sometimes we don’t take care of everything we know we should — it’s hard to find the time, money and courage. Still, as Reynolds says, “We are forced to deal with the legal world we live in, like it or not.”
Taking care of business
What does it take to ensure your children or partner won’t have more problems heaped on their plates if tragedy strikes? It’s easier than you think. Work your way through these five steps to gain some peace of mind.
1. Write a will. Yes, it’s a good idea to hire a lawyer, but you can buy DIY templates from websites such as Quicken and Nolo that cost about $100. Note that any online will template should include power of attorney, covering executive, guardianship and financial powers of attorney.
“I am a do-it-yourself kind of person, and my wife and I both wrote wills with the help of Nolo.com,” financial writer Matthew Amster-Burton says. “We are two parents with a typically developing kid. In the event it becomes more complicated, we will go to a lawyer.”
If you decide to use a lawyer, shop around: Many attorneys in this field offer free half-hour consultations, says lawyer Jamie Clausen, whose firm, Phinney Estate Law, charges a flat fee of $1,200 for estate planning for most couples with up to a few children.
2. Write a living will. Also known as an “advanced directive,” this document “designates the plan of action for your life, or your end of life, based on your beliefs, values and most personal wishes, and ensures that plan gets implemented without guessing or disagreements because you name a medical power of attorney,” Reynolds writes on her website. You can download Washington state’s advanced directive form here. If you are not legally married and do not have a living will, state law may decide who makes medical decisions on your behalf.
3. Deal with your money. This is code for many items: life insurance, disability insurance, creating an emergency fund with six months of living costs covered, paying off debt and saving for retirement.
“It’s very unusual that a situation calls for anything other than term life insurance,” Amster-Burton says. He warns that group life insurance policies offered by employers usually allow you to add optional insurance beyond the tiny default amount, but it’s still not enough; that group policies are usually more expensive than individual policies; and that you will lose your insurance when you change jobs. Individual life insurance is a necessity for people raising children.
4. Collate details. After Jose’s death, Reynolds spent a great deal of time talking to the Apple department she has nicknamed “I’m Sorry for Your Loss” because she didn’t know her husband’s iPhone password.
To avoid similar problems, Amster-Burton created a Google Doc called “Where the Money Is” and shared it with his wife. In your own version, list all your accounts — from bank accounts to the utility bill — and investments, along with vital passwords.
You can keep it even simpler by writing the information in a spiral notebook and paying a service to create this document for you (such as Organize My Affairs, or AfterSteps); or by using a password consolidator such as Last Pass.
Reynolds also recommends naming a digital power of attorney — the online world is like the Wild West these days, and you may not “own” your digital assets once you die. Amster-Burton adds the once-a-year task of checking beneficiaries on your investment and insurance accounts.
5. Be your living legacy now. “When bad things happen, sometimes the important things become very clear and very simple, but it’s amazing how easily we forget this lesson,” Reynolds says. “When my late husband died, we had a strong, solid marriage; I had no regrets, which makes a very big difference. This personal and emotional work is about asking, ‘How are we living our lives right now?,’ because that is what we leave behind when we die. When we talk about getting our shit together, it’s not talking about death — it’s talking about life.”
If these tasks seem daunting to you, put one at a time on your to-do list. Then sign up on Get Your Shit Together! for a monthly nudge via email.
“When we take a smidge of that time spent worrying and get it done, the amount of space it opens up in your life is unimaginable,” Reynolds says. “Carrying around the worry is much heavier and harder than getting the stupid thing done.”