The post-mortem letter, a simple and practical estate planning tool you can put together yourself, can protect your estate, maximize the amount available to heirs and save your spouse and executors a lot of trouble. This important letter tells your executor and survivors where to locate everything they need to carry out your instructions.
Does anyone other than yourself know where your tax records and supporting tax documents are located? How about deeds, titles, wills, insurance papers? Does anyone know who your accountant is? Your lawyer? Your broker? Your financial planner? Your insurance agent? If you pass away without leaving your heirs this information, it will cause a lot of headaches. Worse than that, part of your estate may have to be spent in needless taxes, claims, or expenses because the information is missing.
Related Guide: Please see the Financial Guide: ESTATE PLANNING: How To Get Started
The post-mortem letter is an often overlooked estate planning tool. Tell your executors and survivors what they need to know to maximize your estate the location of assets, records, and contacts. Without the post-mortem letter, you risk losing part of your estate’s assets because necessary assets and documentation cannot be located.
Related Guide: Please see the Financial Guide: DEATH OF A SPOUSE: Financial Steps You Should Take
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What the Post-Mortem Letter Does
A post-mortem letter provides executors and survivors with the location of assets, the identity of professionals consulted by you during life, and the location of important records. And while its inclusion in your estate plan is optional, it is often a very helpful document to have during an especially stressful time.
To represent you after your death, your executor must know almost everything you know. He or she must have all of the facts, figures, and proof that you have at your fingertips. This is where the post-mortem letter is most helpful. Only with the aid of this information can the executor carry out your desires.
The post-mortem letter also serves to inform your loved ones of things you would like done in the event of your death and guidance as to how you would like certain items handled. This includes many things which may not be appropriate to include in your will or which need to be handled immediately after death and prior to a reading of your will.
What the Post-Mortem Letter Does Not Do
The post-mortem letter cannot be used in place of a properly executed will and does not have the legal force of a will. Similarly, it does not take the place of a living will. The post-mortem letter is designed to convey instructions after your death, as opposed to after a life-threatening injury. It is vital to have both a will and a living will in addition to a post-mortem letter.
How To Get the Post-Mortem Letter to Your Executors
Write the post-mortem letter now. Leave several copies of the letter in places where it is certain to be found after your death–for example, attached to your will, in your desk, with your spouse, with your attorney, with your executor, and/or in a safe deposit box.
If you do not want the information in the letter revealed before your death, leave the letter sealed.
Do not leave the only copy of your post-mortem letter in your safe deposit box. It may never be found or may be inaccessible after death.
Caution: It is extremely important that instructions be left with the survivors that none of your papers are to be thrown away until the matter is discussed with your attorney, accountant, or executor. Otherwise, your efforts to provide information helpful to your estate may be thwarted.
Tip: It is critical to update the letter periodically to account for changes that occur after you write it.
What The Post-Mortem Letter Should Contain
The following items should be included in the post-mortem letter.
- Notify your employer (remember to include phone numbers).
- Notify certain friends and relatives (provide a list with phone numbers).
- If you have volunteered as an organ donor, provide the information necessary for your family to act on your wishes.
- Notify the Social Security Administration (include your social security number for convenience).
- List of names and contact numbers for an accountant, attorney, financial planner, and insurance agents.
- List of club memberships.
- Any instructions on the care of pets.
Location of Your Will
The location of your final executed will should be mentioned, along with any copies.
Caution: Do not leave a will in a safe deposit box. Safe deposit boxes are sealed on the death of the decedent in many states; this will cause headaches and delay.
Guardians of Children
The names and addresses of guardians for minor children in case they are orphaned should be mentioned in your will. These should also be included in the letter.
Funeral Arrangements and Cemetery Plot
If you have made arrangements for funeral services or have established a pre-need funeral trust, provide details in the letter. The location of your cemetery plot and the location of the deed or certificate relating to the burial plot should be mentioned. Any specific instructions for the executor relating to burial should be mentioned in the letter.
Related Guide: Please see the Financial Guide: FUNERALS: What To Do At This Stressful Time
Tip: For the reasons mentioned above under “Location of Will,” do not leave the cemetery plot deed or certificate in a safe deposit box.
Safe Deposit Boxes
The location of safe deposit boxes, the contents, along with the location of keys, passwords, and combinations, should be mentioned. The letter should indicate whether anyone else has access to the boxes.
Tip: If other people have access, ask the executor to take inventory of the box before anyone else is allowed to take items out of the box.
If you have rented a post office box, include the number, location of the box and location of the key.
Bank, Checking, and Credit Card Accounts
All checking and savings accounts and their account numbers should be mentioned. Instruct the executor whether a stop should be placed on withdrawals from these accounts, and whether anyone else has the right to withdraw from them, whether as a co-depositor or under a power of attorney.
Describe where your current and past checkbooks and canceled checks can be found. These may save the estate from having to pay a claim or expense that has already been paid, and can establish the cost of an asset.
Tip: Be sure to mention any accounts that are not in your name, such as deposits in a Swiss numbered account. Otherwise, these accounts may be lost because no one knows about them.
Tip: Keep savings accounts active by periodically sending a request for the balance in writing, or by making deposits. Inactive accounts that are left for a certain period may revert to the state.
A list of credit card accounts and numbers should be included. The executor should be instructed to cancel credit card accounts immediately, and to change joint accounts to single accounts.
Provide information on any outstanding debts. Some loans such as student loans and home mortgages may have an insurance feature which cancels the debt in the event of your death. In the case of student loans, this was often paid for in the form of a fee at the amount the loan was disbursed and many people are unaware of this feature. Examine your loan documents for any such features and detail them in your letter.
The location of copies of your income-tax returns going back as far as possible should be mentioned.
The location of copies of any gift-tax returns filed at any time should also be mentioned. If copies cannot be located, your memory of when and where the gift tax returns were filed, and the gift to which they related, should be mentioned. If there are any refund claims pending, or if you feel a refund should be filed for, mention these as well.
Attorneys and Other Professionals
Mention the names and addresses of any professionals associated with your affairs, or who could be of assistance to the executor. Include accountants, attorneys, insurance agents, financial advisors, bank officers, realtors, and brokers. If you relied heavily on these people, they could save your estate plenty of money and trouble just by answering a few of the executor’s questions.
Tip: Also mention your physician, since your executor may need help in proving you were mentally competent.
Mention all life insurance policies owned, with the policy numbers. Give the location of the policies. Do not neglect to mention employer-provided group insurance.
All property, liability, malpractice, business continuation and other types of insurance policies should be mentioned. These policies may save the estate from having to pay a claim, and may also contain the location and description of properties. Further, access to these policies may allow the estate to obtain reimbursement for expenses incurred immediately prior to death.
Tip: Mention policies that have lapsed, since they may still have some value.
List all assets you own and give the location of deeds and titles. Include personal and real property.
Tip: If you know of a market for some of your assets that might otherwise be difficult to sell (e.g., a special collection or unique asset), tell the executor about it.
Don’t neglect to mention property that will not be easy to locate, e.g., property you have loaned out or sold on consignment.
Tip: If there is any reason why the executor should value a piece of property at less than its fair market value, explain why.
List all brokerage accounts and other investment vehicles, such as limited partnerships or interests in real estate.
Give the location of brokers’ confirmation slips for purchases of securities going back as far as possible, in order to establish the cost of securities. The cost is your tax basis, which will affect the amount of tax you pay on a sale for securities you may have sold prior to death. The basis of securities held at the time of death will be determined with reference to their current value. If you cannot locate confirmation slips, then, at least, make a note of transfer dates shown on stock certificates and registered bonds. These dates will allow you to look up the price of the stock.
Provide information on all retirement accounts, including IRAs. Indicate your designated beneficiary and describe where statements are located. In the case of IRAs, provide information on the tax status of the account. In particular, if non-deductible contributions were made a portion of the account may not be taxed to the beneficiary.
Provide a list of all prior employers, no matter how long ago you worked for them. You may be entitled to pension benefits or death benefits.
Tell the executor where to find a description of any pension benefits you are entitled to.
Provide the executor with a record of any governmental employment, past or present. For the armed services, include the branch of service, serial number, and approximate dates. You may be entitled to veterans’ benefits or survivors’ benefits.
Mention the location of your passport and your birth certificate, which may be needed for Social Security benefits and employee retirement plans and specify the location of your marriage certificate, which may be needed in connection with the marital deduction, joint gifts, and statutory spousal rights. A divorce decree will also be necessary, and should be mentioned.
If you received an inheritance from someone, include the name of that person and the date of death. The executor may be able to claim a state or federal estate tax credit for transfers within ten years of your death. Note the location of any letters from the person’s executor, if any.
If you have any future rights in someone else’s property, whether by will or by trust, include those details.
If you have ever set up a trust or been named as a trust beneficiary, where the trust instrument is located and when the trust was set up.
Money Owed to You
Mention debts owed to you by others and any proof that the debt exists.
Government and Non-Profit Agencies
- To order free educational materials visit the Federal Trade Commission
- Funeral Consumers Alliance
A nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting a consumer’s right to choose a meaningful, dignified, affordable funeral.
- Army and Air Force Mutual Aid Association
An organization that provides information on officers’ benefits and estate planning
- Navy Mutual Aid Association
This veterans’ benefit organization provides information for Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Public Health, and NOAA personnel
- These publications contain estate planning tips for military personnel:
- National Guard Almanac
- Reserve Forces Almanac
- Retired Military Almanac
- Uniformed Services Almanac (Active Duty)