What My Mom Did Right: An Estate Planning Success Story

After my dad died, my mom diligently updated her end-of-life documents -- will, durable power of attorney and advance directives -- and filed them away.

After my dad died, my mom diligently updated her end-of-life documents -- will, durable power of attorney and advance directives -- and filed them away. But even the best-laid plans can wobble. During her first brush with death in early 2008, she didn't have the advance directive documents with her. I was four hours away by car and my sister even farther, and cousins sent to her house to retrieve the "manila folder" couldn't find it. Later, I found the critical papers in a big white envelope, which I labeled, "THIS IS IT."

After our wake-up call, Mom sent me to register the power of attorney at the county courthouse so that I could begin managing her financial affairs while she could still answer my questions. That experience proved to be great training for me in my later role as executor. We visited her bank (a phone call wouldn't suffice) to add me as a co-signatory of her safe-deposit box, giving me access as needed.

Well before Mom's death in December 2010, she asked for the same funeral arrangements she had made for my dad, and we discussed other details, such as what dress she would wear and who should serve as pallbearers. Her detailed preparations were an invaluable legacy.

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Mom's holiday card and e-mail lists made it easy to notify family and friends of her death. The "THIS IS IT" file included the names of Mom's "team" -- her lawyer, stockbroker, accountant, insurance agent and priest -- and their contact information. "When the time comes, call them. They will help you," she said. And they did, providing not only their professional serv­ices but also useful referrals to other serv­ice providers (such as real estate agents) and unexpected reminiscences.

Mom left enough cash to cover her funeral as well as her bills and the cost of preparing her home for sale. Her well-organized files proved hugely useful, especially when her life insurer, which had acquired her policy from another insurer, demanded to see the original paperwork (from the 1980s) before it would pay any benefit.

When I opened the safe-deposit box, I found the original copy of her will as well as a letter of instruction. In it, Mom made bequests of specific belongings and outlined a strategy for distributing the rest. She also admonished us: "Please do not have any hard feelings over things. Your relationship as sisters is far more important." She acknowledged the blessings of our family, and said, "I really did enjoy my life." Per her request, her gravestone says, "She had fun!"

Patricia Mertz Esswein
Contributing Writer, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Esswein joined Kiplinger in May 1984 as director of special publications and managing editor of Kiplinger Books. In 2004, she began covering real estate for Kiplinger's Personal Finance, writing about the housing market, buying and selling a home, getting a mortgage, and home improvement. Prior to joining Kiplinger, Esswein wrote and edited for Empire Sports, a monthly magazine covering sports and recreation in upstate New York. She holds a BA degree from Gustavus Adolphus College, in St. Peter, Minn., and an MA in magazine journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University.