The Best Gift for Your Spouse—or Executor

By Henry K. (Bud) Hebeler, 8/21/05


When a spouse dies, it is difficult enough to cope with the grief, but there are many other things that can make the subsequent months a time of overwhelming demands for pressing actions that must be completed. We’ll make some suggestions of things that could well be planned in advance of death and, thus, make both the surviving spouse’s and/or executor’s job a LOT easier.

Right after death, even the brightest of surviving spouses are often in a state of shock which may be aggravated by police presence, a coroner, a request where to take the body, the need to make numerous funeral decisions, and the pressure of ambulance chasing professionals eager to offer specialized help with legal, investment, insurance, accounting and tax help.

We’re going to group helpful things into three broad categories with specific items in each category. You may have some items of your own that you’d like to add for your particular circumstances. The first category is Living, the second is Finances, and the third is Dying. However, they all apply to helping the survivor through what otherwise might be very difficult chores and could eliminate what might require expensive professional help to work through the details. Good records make life a lot easier when there is a problem.

Each item with an asterisk (*) may be a tab or pages in a binder or computer file.

Part I. Living

* An address and telephone list of all of the important people in your lives.

* Key References -- a list of the experts and institutions who can help with medical and financial matters as well as the location of birth certificates, marriage license, titles, financial records, past tax returns, military records for Veteran’s Administration, passwords/user names, and important Web sites. It may be important to have duplicate lists for children.

* Log of home maintenance events. Each item would include a description which might be something like this: 8/10/05 Furnace fan filter repair. XYZ company at phone (XXX) YYY-ZZZZ. $XX.XX.

* Log of computer maintenance events. A typical item might look something like this: 8/10/05 Start-up always asks me to install printer. Called XYZ company at phone (XXX) YYY-ZZZZ. $29.95 Visa charge. Solution was to restore computer to settings on 8/1/05. Case # MMMMMMM.

* Schedule of tasks that take some regular attention. Examples of scheduled events might be service the car in October and March, how to care for the yard, license renewals, etc.

* Instructions for tasks that require regular attention and may have some complexity. In our home, for example, the sprinkler system is complex. My description explains that the drawing for the system and instructions for the controller are on the garage wall and tells how to drain the backflow valves and lines in the fall and restart the system in the spring.

* Instructions to shut off water, gas, furnace, hot water tank, etc.

Part 2: Finances

Our financial affairs are more complicated than those of many people so you may be able to simplify what’s below. We have numerous financial tabs beginning with a financial summary.

* Financial Summary: This includes a table with net monthly income, affordable discretionary spending, current total of investments, and withholding status. It also includes investment strategy, allocation bounds and spending controls.

* Photocopies of driver’s licenses and all active credit cards along with contact instructions.

* Investments – a detailed tabulation by security, owner’s name, joint or separate account, current value, cost basis, beneficiary if any, tax status (taxable, exempt, deferred) and whether stock, cash or other allocation such as bonds or real estate. I update the current values quarterly and rebalance annually.

* Insurance -- a summary of polices including policy numbers, death benefits and contacts. These include life insurance, death benefits, and medical policies which will continue for the surviving spouse’s benefit.

* Investment History – a record of year-end balances in certain categories, the net of deposits to, and draws from, investments, and the annual before-tax return for each previous year.

* Investment Ledger – a record of the dates and amounts for various transactions as well as how the money was used if not reinvested. This also provides the information needed to calculate the annual return at the completion of each year.

* History of significant financial gifts to children and grandchildren and plans for future gifts. Also, an annual list that records contributions to deductible and non deductible organizations.

* Debts and Notes -- a record of names, phones, balance and interest rates concerning notes where others owe you money as well as debts you owe others including credit card balances.

* Bond Ladders – a record of each bond and CD divided by category (EE, I, Muni, etc.) and laddered by call or maturity dates with essential data such as coupons, interest, etc.

* Small Business Notes—Current status, ongoing activities and required reports.

*Disposable Income –tables for current and post death sources of gross and net income including Social Security, pensions, interest, dividends, required minimum distributions for deferred-tax investments, real estate returns, annuity payments, S corporation distributions, etc.

* Income Ledger – a table for monthly entries of income above and the date received.

*Affordable Spending – a table permitting a hand calculation of the annual amount you can afford to spend each year and still not exhaust investments as long as you live.

* Charitable Contributions -- the organizations you have been funding and may continue to fund with amounts given this year, broken down into deductible and nondeductible.

*Estimated Income Tax – a rough estimate to ensure that withholding is within the safe harbor amounts.


Whereas virtually all of the above will be an assist to my surviving wife, the following are items that relate to first concerns:

* A letter with major messages for your spouse, children and grandchildren. Such messages in a video made while alive would be a nice addition as a remembrance.

* A copy of a photo album for sons, daughters, and grandchildren.

* Provisions for long-term-care.

* Durable Power of Attorneys -- the legal document authorizing a survivor to act for you.

* Physician's directives, living wills, and/or do not resuscitate (DNR) orders -- the documents that state your wishes in the event you are incapacitated due to injury or dementia.

* Funeral instructions that give a few of your wishes and some specifics about burial and services. Mortuaries often provide check lists that are handy to get long in advance and provide an opportunity to decide (if permissible) whether to be embalmed, put in a vault, etc. This file also includes a list of people you would like to know that you had passed away.

* Social Security and pension provider: How to notify the government and providers of your death and what to expect. (Caution: Death certificates have a Social Security number which increases vulnerability to identity theft.)

* Wills -- a copy of our most current wills as well as the general things they were trying to accomplish and who could help in setting up the specified trusts and do the tax work.

*Estate & Trusts – should you die soon, an estimate of your separate estate, size of marital and QTIP trusts, and a table of items that bypass your will.

* Disposition of your small business.

* Suggested disposition of real estate properties and re-registration of securities.

* Disposition of personal property, basically who gets what of tangible items that you have accumulated such as jewelry, art, furnishings, etc.

* General instructions about handling finances when you are incapacitated or dead including the need to keep a record of the market prices on the day of your death and/or exactly six months later.



In my own case, the files above are working documents. I update the financial material quarterly using Microsoft Excel worksheets. Ledgers and logs are updated as the events occur. I’ve been adding files over the years as I think they may be helpful. I hope that these notes will be useful in preparing your own records to assist a surviving spouse or heirs.