Rights & Money

Three Steps to Being Prepared

Peace of mind comes of having taken care of things before someone passes away


In the regular feature Your Questions, Olev Edur provides answers to questions from our readers regarding their rights, personal finance, and estate planning. Here’s one on the steps you should take before you need to.

Q. My wife and I are in our late 70s and both in good health, but we realize that our remaining time here is becoming more and more limited. We’ve been giving some thought to what happens when one of us goes and are overwhelmed by the thought of everything that will need to be done. What if I wake up to find my wife has passed away—whom do I call? 9-1-1? An ambulance? The hospital? Do I have to write an obituary? Whom do I notify about government and other pensions and bank and investment accounts? Do I have to file a tax return? What happens to our RRIFs? What do we do and where do we start?


A. The first thing to do is to get yourself organized so that when that fateful time comes, you’ll know everything is in order. More specifically, there are three key steps you should be taking now to ensure that matters are handled properly and to give yourselves some peace of mind.

1. Together with your wife, make a list of all your assets and liabilities, including homes and cottages, business interests, investment accounts (including RRIFs), bank accounts, pension plans, and valuable personal effects such as vehicles, art, and collectibles. Each listed item should include the location/institution, phone numbers/contacts where applicable, a detailed description of the asset including account or registration number, and value.

Take your time, and try to make sure you’ve included everything of significance. While you’re at it, make some notes as to what you would like to happen to each item when either one of you passes away (many partners simply put their assets into joint ownership to smooth the transition from one to the other, or they bequeath everything to each other). You also should talk about what you want to happen with your assets once you’ve both moved on. Do they go to other family members such as children, or to charities or friends? And in what proportions?

2. Once you’re satisfied with your list, find yourselves a good wills lawyer—you can interview two or three to find the one with whom you’re most comfortable. Provide him or her with all the information you’ve collated so that it can be incorporated into a will for each of you; the list you created can be appended as a codicil so that it can be updated as your circumstances and asset values change, without having to redo the entire will each time. Your lawyer can also answer any questions you have about the processes involved.

3. Appoint a good executor, or possibly two co-executors. Because some degree of financial acumen will likely be required in settling an estate, many people appoint a professional who knows all the financial ropes, along with a personal friend who can provide guidance where appropriate on how they might have wanted certain matters to be handled.

The executor is responsible for dealing with most of the things you cite in your letter—notifying banks and investment houses, dealing with government agencies and so on, as well as filing tax returns, paying debts, and completing whatever other documentation is required. If you wish, you can also ask him or her to handle funeral arrangements, write obituaries, and even notify your closest friends and relatives.

These three steps will help to ensure that when the day comes, almost everything will be properly handled. You do have to make sure your will is kept up to date and, when the time comes, yes, you’ll need to call 9-1-1, as well as your attorney and your executor; the rest can then be looked after by others.

Photo: iStock/JodiJacobson.