As humans, we put off death as long as we can (just like organizing), but (just like organizing) it has to happen eventually. Do yourself and your loved ones a huge favor and prepare long before then. We’re here to help, with a list of things you need to know about end-of-life organizing. But we’re going to keep it light, because, ugh, it’s death, you know?
Don’t be like my dad
My dad named me the executor of his will. Oh okay, thank you for your trust, Dad. The trouble was, he forgot to mention that little fact at dinner—or at any point during the next five years—and I didn’t find out until after he died. Please communicate with your family so everyone knows your plans and wishes.
Get a lawyer
Find an attorney who specializes in end-of-life planning. You’ll need them to ensure that all your documents are legally valid and correctly executed. Ask your friends and family for recommendations. If you have a financial advisor, they may have suggestions.
Name an executor/personal representative
An executor (or “personal representative” in Oregon) oversees your estate and ensures your choices are honored. Choose someone you trust to carry out your wishes honestly, diplomatically, and without bias. (And for the love of all things holy, tell them that you’ve named them your P.R.)
A will and estate plan
A will is a legal document that specifies how you want to distribute your assets and possessions after you’ve passed. Estate planning may also involve the establishment of trusts and guardianships for minor children. In addition, it’s the time to pass down all your old stuff that your kids wouldn’t take while you were alive. We’ve actually had a few clients write us into their estate plan, as in, “Hire Big Rocks to deal with all of my possessions after I’m gone!”
A trust is a legal arrangement that names a trustee to hold and manage your post-death assets on behalf of your beneficiaries. The trustee’s role is to ensure that your wishes are followed. You can create a living trust and be the trustee of it while you are still alive, revocable at any time.
Guardianships for dependent family members
If you have minor children or dependent family members, you’ll want to appoint a legal guardian to care for them. Doing this early on will give you some peace of mind.
Durable power of attorney for finances
This document names someone to handle your affairs if you become incapacitated. This person can pay bills, manage assets, and make financial decisions for you. If your little brother still owes you money from 1987, pick someone else.
Power of attorney for healthcare
This document names someone (called your healthcare proxy or healthcare agent) to make medical decisions if you can’t communicate your wishes. Select someone who isn’t mad at you.
Advanced healthcare directives
This document (also known as a living will) outlines your wishes for medical treatment in the event that you can’t communicate. Advanced health care directives cover things like resuscitation, organ donation, and life support choices. It’s very important that the person who has your healthcare power of attorney, and other family members, know your preferences. (Nobody wants to have to guess about pulling the plug.)
Physician orders for life-sustaining treatment (POLST)
This directive specifies the type of treatment you wish to receive during a medical emergency. Oregon has a POLST Registry, where emergency responders can find your medical wishes in the event that your heart stops or you stop breathing. It’s a bright pink form, and we recommend keeping it in a visible place, such as on your refrigerator. Keep your registration card in your purse or wallet.
Organ and tissue donations
If you wish to donate organs or tissues, you can register your decision with your state’s organ donation registry. In Oregon, let the DMV know when you renew your driver’s license, and they’ll print it right on there. Let your family know about this heroic side of you, too.
Funeral and burial arrangements
Make choices for your memorial service or celebration of life, as well as your burial or cremation wishes. Think about songs you want played, a favorite poem to be read, a venue for the gathering, and whether you want to pre-pay: plan as little or as much as you’re comfortable with. In my Greek family, we take pictures of each relative posing at the deceased’s open coffin. That’s a bit much if you ask me. But as they say, it’s your funeral (sorry), so do it your way.
By the way, experts recommend that people do not put funeral wishes in their wills, since funerals usually occur before the will is considered. Give your P.R./family members a copy of your wishes.
Consider holding a celebration of life before you die (AKA a “living funeral”). Why miss out on hearing people say nice things about you?
Social media and digital assets
Do you want to live on Facebook after you die? Do you want someone checking your email? Leave instructions for your digital accounts (and how to access them) so your family knows your preferences. Some platforms, such as Facebook, allow you to designate a beneficiary to manage your account after you pass.
Create a legacy project
Are you a great cook? Leave your family a recipe book of your best recipes. Have great stories? Record them to be shared and preserved. Love to sew? Consider making a special quilt for loved ones to remember you by.
Closing tips for your final organizing project
- Put all your important papers (your will and directives, financial documents, social security card, etc.) where trusted family members or loved ones will know where to find them. In addition, make copies for them to keep in their files or share them digitally via an encrypted platform.
- Make sure your loved ones and/or your trustee know your computer passwords, as well as how to access your financial accounts.
- Review your end-of-life choices on a yearly basis; circumstances can shift and you may want to make changes along the way.
We realize that organizing for death is not nearly as much fun as organizing your sock drawer. But it will bring you comfort knowing it’s done and will help your loved ones tremendously. To ease your journey, here’s our Death to Do List.
Another aspect of preparation is thinking about what to do with your possessions. Here are some helpful past workshops and blog posts from the Big Rocks library:
- Preparing for the Ultimate Life Transition (Virtual Workshop)
- How to Start Swedish Death Cleaning (Blog)
- The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning (Virtual Workshop)
- Decluttering the Decades: Rightsizing for Seniors (Blog)
For paper overwhelm:
- Tips to Manage the Paper in Your Home
- Rightsizing Sentimental Papers (Virtual Workshop)
- How to Rightsize Sentimental Papers (and Keep the Memories)
Additional resource: Advice for Future Corpses (And Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying by Sallie Tisdale.
And of course, for help with rightsizing, organizing, moving, or clearing out your home to prepare it for sale, Big Rocks Organizing would be honored to gently assist you. Just contact us.
About Andrea Thompson
Andrea was an advertising copywriter/creative director for 40 years before retiring then unretiring to start a new career in organizing. She fully admits her new home is not 100% organized.