FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. — Last year, I dealt with the death of two people who were very close to me.
In September, my father unexpectedly passed away at the age of 59, due to an illness. The man I thought to be indestructible, suddenly was gone.
Also, almost two months later, a longtime friend 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 task 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 haphazardly filed in rows of unmarked binders, threatening to come tumbling off the shelf in an avalanche of papers. 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 passing would not be any easier for my survivors. While I consider myself a tidy person, my apartment is full of individualized disorder, that sometimes 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 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 matters
According to the Air Force Legal Assistance website, a last will and testament is a legal document used to disseminate your property among selected individuals, upon 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 wanted to be buried — what to do with his car, furniture and the rest of his possessions.
If my father had a will, many of those questions would have been answered for us and the following 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.
It is very important to draft and maintain a will, however, it is equally important to make it accessible and safe — keeping it in a fireproof box provides added security. 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, coffee for funeral attendees, to burial plot fees — unexpected expenses quickly racked up.
Life insurance could have alleviated that 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 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 from collecting 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 the hard drive of his password-protected computer.
That left many of his photos and favorite music, email accounts and social media, nearly inaccessible and his computer with a vault to the information contained inside.
Consider preparing a list of passwords for 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 or a 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? Does your family know where you want to be buried or what should be placed on the headstone?
I am not suggesting we live in fear of death every day — but you never know what life has in store for you. After all, none of us are 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 is better to prepare now, before it is too late.
If you have not already done so, strive to get your affairs in order and plan ahead for the ones you love.
For more information on how to establish a will and what Airmen should do to prepare for the unexpected, please visit the U.S. Air Force Legal Assistance website, where you can also locate contact information for your local legal office.