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Law in the Marketplace: Planning for sudden death and disability

Sadly, if any of us suffers a stroke, heart attack or other life-threatening event, we could suddenly and unexpectedly incur a crippling disability or death. All of us — but perhaps especially those of us who are older and those of us who own and operate our own businesses — have a major duty to provide our successors, including especially our spouses, children and other dependents, with a comprehensive planning memo on how to proceed if we suffer one of these tragic events.

As you’ll see, writing these planning memos is a big job, but it is critically important for our successors.

By my count, these “death and disability” planning memos should handle a total of 32 main tasks (in addition to any tasks unique to the writer’s personal situation). In this week’s column, I’ll address the first eight of these tasks. In two later columns, I’ll address the remaining 24. A useful online article about how to write planning memos and a set of practical checklists may be found online under the title “A letter of last instruction: Everybody needs one.”

Here are first eight tasks you should address in your planning memo.

1. Your wallet and checkbooks. You should advise your successors as to where you keep your wallet and checkbooks when they’re not on your person.

2. Your health; your medical specialists. You should advise your successors about the current state of your health and the names and contact information of any medical or dental specialists whose services you use. Obviously, if you suddenly die, this information won’t be useful to your successors, but if you become disabled, it may be invaluable.

3. Banks; safety deposit boxes. You should inform your successors of the names of all of the banks where you have accounts, and you should ensure that at least one of your successors is a co-signer on each of these accounts. In addition, you should provide your successors with addresses and telephone numbers for your banks, and you should advise them that if you suddenly become disabled or die, they should call your banks to determine the amount of cash in each of your accounts.

Finally, if you have a safe deposit box with a bank or elsewhere, you should make sure that at least one of your successors has a right of access to that box.

4. Location of your personal papers. You should advise your successors as to where you keep your important personal papers. These may include, for example, your estate plan and documents concerning your mortgage insurance, accident insurance, auto and homeowner’s insurance, life and disability insurance, any relevant Medicare and Medicaid insurance, and every other relevant form of insurance.

5. Family income and expenses. You should provide your successors with a written list of all significant categories of your own and your family’s personal expenses and with average monthly and annual totals of your expenses in each of these categories. Without this list, it will be difficult or impossible for your successors to plan their economic response to your death or disability. Compiling your list may be time-consuming. For example, even if you and your family are frugal, your expense categories may number in the dozens. But your family income and expense list will be an indispensable part of your planning memo.

6. Miscellaneous family expenses. In addition to the expenses identified in the above family expense document, you should advise your successors of any unlisted but reasonably foreseeable family expenses that they may be unaware of at present but of which they will need to be aware if you suddenly become disabled or die. These may include, for example, quarterly tax payments, expenses necessary to replace or repair home equipment such as hot water heaters and furnaces and family vehicles; and the cost of repairing your roof or repainting your home if these are likely to be necessary in the near future.

7. Debts. In the above list or elsewhere, you should identify for your successors all of your own personal debts and those of your business and your family, including mortgage debts and credit card debts, the amount of these debts and monthly installment payments on them, and applicable interest rates. In addition, if, in drafting your loan list, it becomes clear to you that you can pay off any of these debts without undue financial stress now or soon or that you can cancel any unnecessary credit cards, you should do so.

8. Your estate planner. If you have an estate plan, your planning memo should state the name of your estate planner, his or her contact information, and where your successors can find your estate planning documents if they don’t already possess copies of them. In addition, on the basis of a discussion with your estate planner, you should state at least briefly in your planning memo what your executors must do and when they must do it if you suddenly become disabled or die.

In fact, you should provide a draft of your planning memo to your estate planner and, before you finalize it and distribute it to your successors, you should ask for any comments he or she may have about it.

Finally, if you don’t have an estate plan, you should get one ASAP. I’m not an estate planner, but I can assure you that estate plans aren’t expensive and that if you suddenly become disabled or die, a good estate plan can save your successors substantial cash and time and protect them from countless practical problems.

John Cunningham is a lawyer licensed to practice law in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. He is of counsel to the law firm of McLane Middleton, P.A. Contact him at 856-7172 or [email protected]. His website is For access to all of his Law in the Marketplace columns, visit