The writer Truman Capote used to say, “Where were the critics when the pages were blank?”
I have been struggling for a few years to get my act together in the form of detailed plans for my wife and/or heirs if anything happened to me or both of us. Until recently, the instruction sheet was just a persistent blank page. However, before my wife and I go to India later this month I decided to get all of my affairs in order because I’m told that driving there is perilous. We’ve been advised to avoid the front seat of the van to minimize the damage if we’re in one of the many terrible accidents that I’m told we’ll pass routinely in a day of travel.
Given my paranoia, I decided to review my personal affairs and make sure that all were in order. Wills, trusts, insurance, paying my father’s nursing home bills (he turns 100 on May 3) and other instructions for my survivors just seemed overwhelming until my friend, Paul Curtis, the legendary Acalanes High School boys soccer coach and a master of organization, suggested the index card approach. With index cards, you create a card for each major category needing attention and keep them with you to jot down items as they come to mind. This solves the problem of being overwhelmed by an effort to start writing down everything at once. You eat the elephant one bite at a time.
First, there was the responsibility for my dad’s care — his nursing home and bank accounts, mutual funds, insurance, caregivers, wills, attorney information, etc. Who could possibly figure all of that out without detailed instructions? It alone covered three index cards before I was through listing the details.
Next up is the information regarding my own family’s wills, trusts, attorney contact information, insurance, banking, investment information, mortgage details, estate planning details, deed to the house, life insurance trust, and countless other items that come to mind as I’m walking around with the index cards serving as a constant reminder to wrap things up.
Then there’s my business interest, which demands a succession plan if something happens to me. My wife and company president would have a track to run on based on written instructions I have spelled out. In the case of both of us “not returning,” my children would work with our company president based on the same instructions. We do have a deep bench, so life in the company would remain unchanged; it’s just that I would be gone. After what I like to think would be an initial shock, business as usual would prevail.
Our house is complicated. It incorporates all kinds of technology, including alarm systems, solar panels, Wi-Fi, flash hot water heaters and recirculation pumps, pool pumps and even a septic system with a collection of tanks, pumps, leach lines and other paraphernalia. Someone coming in cold to figure it all out would have a challenge. So, more notes and instructions on that index card. Plus, all the contact information for the various service companies.
We have a family vacation home owned with other relatives that is now held by a limited liability company with an operating agreement that spells out solutions to various issues that inevitably come up with successive generations of owners. “Saving the Family Cottage” is the book that helped move us in the right direction after we drifted along for several years with a vague sense of who was in charge. Another index card spelled out where all the records could be found.
What about our dogs? They get shipped to my son Mason, the veterinarian. They’ll love Massachusetts.
What about the sailboat I have owned with four other guys for 25 years? I have been the guy in charge and have all the bank and ownership records. It’s all laid out for the next “captain.”
The stack of index cards just got thicker as the weeks went on, but in the end the information was transposed to a written narrative — certainly a vast improvement over the informational void that would otherwise leave a spouse and heirs just peering into the abyss. Now I will be able to sleep at night — even in India.