Last year, I dealt with the death of two people close to me.
In September, my father passed away unexpectedly at the age of 59, due to an illness. The man I thought to be indestructible, suddenly was gone.
Almost exactly two months later, a long-time friend also passed away in the hospital when complications occurred during a routine surgery. Only a few weeks before, the young athlete had celebrated his 25th birthday.
All I wanted during that time was to retreat and deal with my grief. However, my family was left not just with the emotional pain, but also the dreadful duty of arranging funeral proceedings and disposal of my father’s personal belongings. Needless to say, I didn’t like the tasks at hand.
Even while living in a clean household, my father’s many financial and legal documents were only haphazardly filed in rows of unmarked binders, threatening to come tumbling off the shelf in an avalanche of paper. His bank information was hidden in a random cabinet, and nothing was labeled or sorted in any distinguishable order or system.
After I returned to my own apartment, I quickly realized my own passing wouldn’t make it much easier for my survivors. While I consider myself to be a tidy person, my apartment is still full of individualized organization that sometimes even makes my wife wonder where I filed the last utility bill.
My friend’s passing especially sent the frightening message that while death at any age is tragic to family and friends, it can happen to anybody, any time.
I invite you to consider this: If you were to die, how long would it take people to find the things that matter among much unnecessary clutter we often accumulate in life? Are your important documents easily accessible, and does somebody know where to find them?
Luckily, a few simply steps can make a big difference to those left behind.
Why your will will matter
According to the Air Force Legal Assistance website, a last will and testament is a legal document you use to dispose of your property at your death. It may also name people to do important jobs, such as a personal representative or executor of your estate, a trustee if you have established a trust and guardians for minor children.
One of the worst things about my dad’s passing was that he did not leave instruction or wishes. For my family, this meant we had to discuss thoroughly how and where my dad would have liked to have been buried, what to do with his car, furniture and the rest of his possessions.
If my father had had a will, a lot of those questions would’ve been answered for us and the “next steps” would have been expedited.
The most important part about creating a will is simply starting one. Luckily, a will does not take effect until your death and can be discarded and renewed anytime a change in life occurs.
Almost as important as creating and maintaining a will, however, is also making it accessible and safe, keeping it in a fireproof box, for example. As my experience with my father’s bank information showed, documentation does no good unless somebody knows where to find it when it matters.
‘The uninsured life is not worth leaving’
While I was aware that a funeral costs money, the many small expenditures connected to a burial were a surprise to me. From the casket to the headstone, from coffee for funeral attendees to burial plot fees — unexpected expenses quickly rack up.
Life insurance could have alleviated this problem. It is intended to replace the initial loss of income, pay estate taxes, debts and cover funeral costs to the family. Unfortunately, my father did not have a policy, leaving those costs to be covered by his hardly accessible bank account, his remaining paycheck and the rest by his family.
Every active-duty service member, of course, is eligible for the Service Member’s Group Life Insurance, a term life insurance. That means it does not build cash value over time and only provides coverage for the assigned term only. This is an excellent way to protect against premature death on a strictly temporary basis — an example being military duty.
A variety of cash value insurance is available to provide a lasting insurance asset in the form of a cash accumulation account. For military members, it is important to check whether such policies have a “war clause,” preventing their beneficiaries to collect if the service member is killed in war or on duty.
Service members should also make sure that their SGLI is updated regularly to reflect the desired beneficiaries.
Privacy in life, access after death
In addition, there are more private issues to deal with. As I scoured my dad’s house for photos, letters, important documents and memorabilia important to my memory of him, I realized many were digital photos saved on hard drives and his pass-coded computer.
This left many of his photos and favorite music, email accounts and social media, for example, nearly inaccessible and his computer as a vault to the information contained inside.
Consider preparing a list of passwords to your computer and online accounts, so others can access your digital documents even when they don’t share your computer on a regular basis.
Naturally, such a listing should be kept in a safe place, a sealed envelope and safe deposit box; but make sure the bank does not seal or limit access to it after your death.
Talking it over
Finally, more important than legal preparation may be the open conversation with those closest to you. While speaking about your own death may seem callous, it can make it easier for your family to meet your wishes.
Will your family know whether you wanted to be cremated or not, for example? Where you would like to be buried or what you would like your headstone to look like?
I’m not suggesting we live in fear of death every day – but you never know what life has in store for you. After all, not one of us is indestructible.
Instead, I suggest that as Airmen we have a duty not only to our service, but also to our next of kin, our loved ones – those who have already enough to deal with after we’re gone. It’s better to prepare now, before it’s too late.
If you haven’t already, strive to get your things in order and plan ahead for those you love.
For more information on how to establish a will and what Airmen should do to prepare, please visit the U.S. Air Force Legal Assistance website, where you can also locate contact information for your local legal office.