Sam Harrington-Lowe looks at admin best practice when it comes to planning for your own death…
If you were to die tomorrow, how would your admin look? What would it be like for your next of kin coming in and sorting out your affairs? Preparing for death doesn’t sound like fun but you can save your loved ones a lot of aggro.
My father died in February – ironically not from Covid, although he spent most of his time in hospital during the hideous second wave. He died from complications following heart surgery, something nobody was expecting.
Prior to the op, he’d had plenty of consultations. Was deemed a good risk, even at 79. Overall health pretty good – just a dodgy ticker that would probably kill him if it wasn’t fixed. So we went for it.
Heart conditions are very much part of his family side; his brother literally dropped dead at home with a heart attack three years ago, his mother years before at the same age. We didn’t want the same for pa. We believed he’d be home after about a week in hospital, and planned accordingly.
The best laid plans…
It’s not irony but tragedy that the operation to fix his heart was itself a success, because what happened in the four or five months after that was nothing short of a living nightmare. He developed pneumonia, suffered kidney trauma, became delirious and incoherent, suffering terrible hallucinations. During his more lucid moments he called it ‘Kafkaesque’.
The pneumonia led to coughing, he cracked open his sternum and went back into theatre. He contracted a superbug infection that took microbiology some time to find. And just when we thought we were over the hump, he had a massive internal bleed, necessitating some four or five further operations. He spent weeks on a ventilator, getting weaker and weaker.
We have no way of knowing how much he was aware of throughout this entire experience, because we weren’t allowed to see him for much of it. And when we could, he was bonkers. It was heart-breaking. He knew how much we loved him, that’s about all I can take out of this. I know he knew. It’s some small comfort.
I tell you all this, not because this is a story about his medical journey. But it’s a warning to anyone and everyone.
Death can lurk around the corner and lurch out, scythe in hand, when least expected. And you need to ask yourself – if you died tomorrow, what kind of job would you leave behind for your loved ones?
How would your admin look? Could anyone get into your emails, your phone, your laptop, your house even?! Having just been through weeks of dealing with my lovely dad’s ‘sadmin’, I’m going to talk you through some of the things to think about.
As a family, before Dad went into hospital, we made plans that were awkward to discuss but for which I will be forever grateful. A surreal brunch with him and some sisters at mine, we talked about his will, and he organised a Lasting Power of Attorney for a couple of us.
I can’t say it was a comfortable conversation, but I can say that I was grateful for it a number of times. Do this.
We talked through his funeral plans, and discussed under what situations he would not want to be resuscitated (and you will often need a PoA to be able to make that decision for someone else, by the way). We even went through where he wanted his ashes scattered.
I followed it all up in an email so the other sisters could see, and we all knew what the plan was, should the worst happen. As we’re quite a large family, having that clarity was brilliant, and even more valuable further down the line. We never disagreed about what should happen, we knew what he wanted. I can’t say it was a comfortable conversation, but I can say that I was grateful for it a number of times. Do this.
The initial hit…
We were able to be with Dad when he died, and it was – as far as these things can be – rather lovely. He just left, no struggle, and I am SO grateful for that. We all held him and said goodbye and cried around his bed in a private room, and thank you Royal Sussex County Hospital for that. The hospital was like the bloody Somme at that time, Covids stacked in every conceivable space, everyone exhausted pulling double shifts, and yet they never made us feel like he was in the way of a bigger problem. God love them forever for that.
But as soon as we stepped back from the bed, there was admin. Check his belongings, did we have his watch, his iPad and phone, have we got all his clothes, his books he planned to read, any cash he’d brought in? What happens to his body? Astoundingly, through nearly four months of being in hospital and staying in six different wards and three different ICUs, we had everything. I blindly signed the release form and took the paperwork and his little suitcase of bits. All I could take in at that stage was the nurse saying, ‘everything you need to do next is in this booklet, don’t worry about it now’. I figured I would read it later.
The next stages…
So the next bit is registering the death, and that was actually really easy during lockdown. It was all online and on the ‘phone, but usually you’ll have to go to the registry office. I expect most local authorities have slightly different systems, but the nurse was true to her word – it was all in the booklet.
There were immediate things to pay, like the garage where his car had been having work done; his cleaner and so on. Before he went into hospital he told me he’d taken out a load of cash for exactly this eventuality and hidden it in a book on his bookshelf. Could I remember which bloody book?
So imagine my joy when I rooted through his wallet and found a receipt for cash withdrawal, and just the words ‘Dog’s Medical Dictionary’ on it in his writing. I laughed, and then I cried. Clever Dad.
Anyway, I digress. So – register the death, and make sure you get a few copies of the Death Certificate, you need to provide those to a fair few organisations. And advise banks and building societies as quickly as possible. It can take a while to get those locked and then released again, and there may be Probate to worry about too.
So let’s start with passwords, because I quickly found that this was the key to getting into most things. For example, without being able to open his laptop or iPad it would have been way harder to get his email. Also, being able to use his laptop meant that a lot of passwords were stored in his browser, so we could get into other sites – like his online banking, for example, or his food ordering.
Getting into his email was invaluable – firstly for contacting friends etc – but also for resetting passwords we couldn’t find or work out.
He’d emailed me before he went into hospital with the most important passwords – laptop, iPad, some PINs for bank cards – and this made getting into everything else much easier. And yes, I know that’s not exactly secure. But as a 79-year-old man, he wasn’t quite there with keychains.
Think also about passwords that aren’t directly about money – we found loads as we went along, for example; Netflix, Paypal, magazine subscriptions, even the audio system in the car. Many of these were handwritten in his filing (more about that below), but there were odd ones we never got to.
There are secure ways of sharing passwords with family, and there’s a good roundup of some of the best password managers here on UK PC Mag.
If you want to share your passwords or login credentials with family but you’re really struggling with technology, I guess the most secure way might be good old-fashioned pen and paper, kept somewhere safe. Possibly with a solicitor. And as long as you’ve got two people you trust, share this information with both of them. Then there’s accountability, and not just one person in charge of all your stuff. (Don’t hold me to this, incidentally, I’m not giving actionable advice here! I’m just saying make sure someone can get through your gates somehow. How you do it is up to you!)
Things to do ahead…
Nobody wants to think about dying, but it will happen to you. Death and taxes, etc. At the age of 51 I’ve already started putting plans into action for my daughter. You never know, hey? I could be hit by a piece of rocket falling back to Earth one day.
Set up a Power of Attorney, again, preferably with two people. And for goodness’ sake make a will! Having a will, and being a named executor – as well as being named next of kin – made life SO MUCH easier for me after Dad died.
There’s a really good service called Tell Us Once which informs lots of the official places of a death. These include pensions department, local authorities, some utilities, passport office, DVLA and so on. It can save a LOT of time, but the service requires information like driving licence number, passport number, National Insurance number and so on. So make sure someone can get to all those.
Declutter before you die – Swedish Death Cleaning
Which brings me neatly to the next bit. Paperwork.
I got lucky with Dad – he was a tidy and organised man with a (slightly obsessive) passion for filing. So when I sat at his desk and opened his filing cabinet, everything was there. Neatly filed in date order, labelled and tagged. His utility bills, bank statements, correspondence – all tagged and tabbed. All his car stuff, log book, MOT details, insurance details etc. Amazing.
I have piles of paperwork everywhere, in no discernible order. I don’t even open envelopes half the time.
He also had a book with useful phone numbers in – the cleaner, the gardener, friends and relatives and so on. That was really useful.
It made me realise what an utterly ghastly experience the same job would be for my daughter. I have piles of paperwork everywhere, in no discernible order. I don’t even open envelopes half the time.
So maybe think about that? I think about it… I even bought a filing cabinet and some folders and tags. I’m getting there, if you’re reading this, daughter mine.
Pretty much everything we needed to deal with was in his filing. I’m not going to talk about stuff like personal correspondence and belongings today, but obviously have a think about those too. The only thing we were never able to find was his passport, weirdly. I know he will have hidden it somewhere clever, but I never found it.
Other bits to consider…
Things that popped out for us included some stocks and shares he held that we didn’t know about; random things like a fully hosted website and ecommerce setup (!); a few other odds and sods. So jot those down as you go along, and add them to the overall picture.
Also, I got his post diverted to my house for three months which was a great move, because there were lots of things that cropped up in that. Memberships, TV license that needed cancelling, birthday cards from friends who didn’t know he’d died and so on. It’s extraordinary how long that went on for, things popping out of the woodwork.
There’s obviously a lot more to talk about when someone dies – what happens to the house, the belongings; what you should take, what you can donate, what goes in a clearance. Also the funeral arrangements and so on. It’s all heart-wrenching stuff, but you get through it, and these things are much more in your control.
But it’s making sure your loved ones can get into the early admin stuff that helps make this all smoother. It’s hard enough losing someone you love without endless barriers and hurdles to overcome, just to get the admin sorted out. So find a way to make that part easier for them.
And whilst you’re at it, have a look in your loft!