As Benjamin Franklin once observed, nothing is certain except Death and Taxes. If you’re like most people, though, you find the topic of planning for your own passing uncomfortable. In fact, it’s more comfortable planning for TEOTWAWKI than planning for one’s own death. Many find it so uncomfortable that they avoid planning for it at all.
A lack of a good plan, however, leaves your loved ones in bad shape: they could be saddled with months or even years of legal proceedings, have to pay onerous taxes that could have been avoided, and your years of preparing and saving could be significantly wasted. Worst of all, if your preparations are needed, your family may be unable to effectively utilize them when the time comes.
This article will not focus not on legal estate planning. There are plenty of resources regarding the legal aspect of estate planning. You should have a will, should try to keep your assets out of the clutches of the probate system and other governmental bodies, and you should try to minimize taxes. If you have any significant assets, then sit down with an attorney to make a plan to protect your estate from government taxes and interference. Rather, this article is about practical estate planning: what happens upon the death of a person has spent many years preparing for the unexpected?
A personal example: a close family member, a longtime prepper, passed away suddenly several years ago. I’ll call him “Uncle Joe.” Uncle Joe had a wife and adult children and had spent years providently preparing for uncertain times. He had a will. He had stored food, firearms, tangible and non-tangible investments, and the other sort of things a prepared person has on hand. But one thing that he didn’t adequately prepare for was his own death.
The Forgotten Combination
Here’s an example: Uncle Joe’s firearms were securely and safely locked in a quality gun safe. The problem was, no one knew the combination. Of course, he had told his spouse the combination years ago, but she didn’t open the safe on a regular basis and over time had forgotten the combination. Try as she might to remember it, the safe eventually had to be forced open, at significant expense, by a locksmith. Had he ensured that another person had access to the safe, that money would not have been wasted – not only the money to open the safe, but the expense of buying a new one.
Uncle Joe had stored food in the basement, and in fact had quite the deep larder. The food was organized somehow, but no one was quite sure how. My uncle had neglected to label many of the containers. Knowing that he had been preserving food for close to thirty years, his family had no way of knowing whether the containers were five years old or twenty-five years old. They erred on the side of caution and disposed of any stored food whose age was unknown. Again, if the containers had only been labelled properly, Uncle Joe’s stored food wouldn’t have gone to waste.
Your Tangible Investments
I once saw a cartoon in another blog. It was a man, kneeling next to his bed, saying his nightly prayers. His prayer was, “dear Lord, when I die, don’t let my wife sell my guns for what I told her I paid for them.” Entertaining, to be sure, but there is truth in the jest. For many preppers, a firearm battery represents a serious investment, but if the spouse or children don’t share the deceased’ appreciation for shooting, they are liable to dispose of the collection haphazardly, maybe getting pennies on the dollar for expensive pieces.
Many years ago, a co-worker of mine was driving down the road and passed a garbage pail filled with that appeared to be rifles. He stopped, and sure enough, the can was filled with rifles and shotguns. Not wanting to assume they were free, he knocked on the door to ask permission to take them, and encountered a woman who had recently been widowed. She said yes, he could have them – and in fact, she had another garbage can full of more firearms ready to go out.
The woman wasn’t interested in the shooting sports and had no interest in spending the time and attention necessary to figure out what they were worth and sell them. She just wanted them out of the house without further thought. My co-worker walked out with several thousand dollars’ worth of guns that day because he was in the right place at the right time. It was easy for the widow to simply dispose of the firearms, and it was hard for her to deal with them. The husband could have saved his wife thousands of dollars merely by writing down the approximate values of each firearm, or having a trusted friend assigned to sell them on the widow’s behalf.
A Trusted Friend
Luckily, Uncle Joe’s family didn’t give away his firearms. Uncle Joe’s wife came to me asking for help dealing with his collection. With my help, they identified which firearms they wanted to keep, and sold the rest for fair prices. Consider your own situation: with you gone, how will your collection help your family? If you’re lucky enough to have children, friends, or other family to inherit your firearms, who will get which ones? Specifying your wishes now might go a long way towards preventing family disputes when you’ve passed.
It’s not merely firearms. Imagine your kids go through your safe and find a few American Gold Eagles. Will they know what they’re worth? Or are they simply going to bring what they find to the gold buyer and be happy to walk out with a few hundred dollars? Does your spouse or kids know that your bucket of pre-1965 silver coins is worth much more than face value? They might not. Imagine hundreds of silver dimes being poured into a supermarket coin redemption machine. Maddening! But this happens on a regular basis. Make sure your precious metals are labelled – especially “junk silver” and other items whose value may not be immediately apparent.
You might think to yourself, “My family members are intelligent, this can’t happen to them.” But the unexpected death of a family member is stressful and overwhelming, and there is a strong temptation to take the easy way out and sell items for much less than they’re worth. By way of example: Uncle Joe had a classic toy collection, and his family knew it was worth money. But between life insurance, the probate process, cleaning out the house, the funeral, and everything else there was to do, no one wanted to take on the responsibility of selling the collection.
So they sold it all – close to $7,500 worth – to a buyer on the Internet for just under a thousand dollars. Intelligent, rational people who knew what the items were worth gave up on them because they were overwhelmed and it was too much work to determine which were worth selling and which were not. The problem could have been avoided, or ameliorated, if he had kept records of what each item was worth.
And even for families where everyone is on the same page with preparedness, it’s worth a yearly checkup to make sure your loved ones know how to use the equipment. You have a generator, solar panels, batteries, and so on. Maybe you’ve even shown your loved ones how to hook it all up. But can they do it? Perhaps even in the cold, the heat, the snow? You might not even have passed away, you could simply be on a work trip when the need arises.
Be Prepared to Take Steps
The moral of the story is to ensure that your loved ones know what steps you’ve taken to be prepared. Equip them with a list of items, where they are stored, the approximate value, the necessary maintenance, and how to use them. Write clear directions on how to start the generator, and attach the instructions to the generator. Make sure they know how to use the transfer switch, and how to use the well pump. Make them do it while you watch. They will remember it better than if they had just watched you do it.
Tell them where you keep the valuables. To this day, Uncle Joe’s kids are convinced that he had a silver bar hidden in the rafters. He never told anyone where it was and they looked and looked but couldn’t find it. His house is sold now, and one day it’ll burn down and some lucky person will come across a molten globe of silver – all because Uncle Joe didn’t tell anyone where it was.
When it comes to funerals, I’m a plain wooden box type of person. If you are, too, make sure your family knows that. There is no sense in them spending thousands of dollars on the Cadillac of caskets if that doesn’t concern you.
When it came time to deal with Uncle Joe’s bank, retirement, and investment accounts, another problem arose. No one knew his passwords. Eventually, by providing copies of the death certificate to the various banks and other institutions, the family was able to gain access to the money. But it was months — and in some cases closer to a year — later. If they had been in imminent need of cash, they would have been completely out of luck. And they keep getting statements for accounts that they didn’t even know he had.
After seeing what happened with Uncle Joe’s family, I created a computer file with my passwords, bank statements, the combination to safes, et cetera. It details what accounts I have at which institutions. It says where the valuables are. It’s encrypted and stored on a disc at a trusted friend’s house (the encryption, with a free program called 7zip, makes the disc utterly useless to anyone but the holder of the password). If I pass unexpectedly, my family won’t have to wonder where my money is kept, or worry about whether they can access it to pay bills today. They could go to the ATM that day and take out money. They won’t have to hire locksmiths to open the safe. They won’t be in danger of selling valuable items for much less than they are worth.
Here is another thing to consider: Giving your family less to do when you pass away. Uncle Joe worked on cars. When he unexpectedly passed there were close to a dozen cars on his property in various stages of disrepair. His kids had to arrange for them all to be removed. Think about your kids. Do you have broken down cars? Get rid of them. A basement filled with junk that you’re never going to use? Sit down and think seriously about whether it’s junk or not. And if it is indeed junk, then get rid of it.
And even if the unexpected happens while I’m out of town, I am confident knowing that my family has the knowledge and access to my preparations to be able to effectively utilize them, so that by the time I make it home, they’ll be safe and warm waiting for me.
Consider Your End
Many prepared people know that some of the best preparations you can make are between your ears. But do your loved ones a favor: In preparing for uncertain times, also consider your own mortality. Instill in your family the knowledge that will enable them to survive without you, and the knowledge that will enable them to successfully and effectively utilize your preparations. Your family might thank you now, but you can be assured that even if they don’t, they will thank you in the future.