When something happens to you, where do they start?

On a sunny spring morning, my husband and I relaxed on a train crossing France, enjoying the scenery, our books, and cappuccinos. After 10 days of vacation, we were still, serene, and looking forward to time with family.


At the same time, at our route’s end, my daughter was increasingly concerned about our whereabouts and arrival. To my (later) chagrin, I had forgotten to forward our itinerary to her! While it all came together—once we turned on our cell phones and made contact—the disconnect raised questions.


♦ If we went missing in France, who had a copy of our itinerary? Where would they start looking for us?

♦ If we were injured or killed, who would she call—to retrieve our Medical Directives and Durable Powers of Attorney for Finances, to handle any short-term tasks at our home, to learn of our final arrangements—while she and wewere 6,000 miles from our home!


I have had my important records and instructions documented and safely stored for years. Given that, my daughter knows how to access and follow up. But this spring day highlighted all the change—and complexity—brought about by my recent marriage, my two moves, and my agent-daughters’ relocations. That is:


♦ Both daughters live far from me now—too far to “pop in” to retrieve my records.

♦ With my move to a new home, the steps to access my planner have changed—and my agents need those steps communicated clearly and across long distances.

♦ My husband has his own line up of agents on his legal documents—and our agents do not all know how to contact each other.

♦ In the short-term, my husband has his important records stored differently and separately from mine. His agents also need the access steps clearly communicated.


If we are incapacitated or die, it is important that our agents respond—for example, retrieving our Medical Directive documents; managing short-term tasks associated with our home, work, and care of minor children or pets; planning and carrying out our final arrangements. All of this is a significant burden—a burden that needn’t be worsened by confusion and obstacles.


So, how did we respond to this information gap? My husband and I developed an overview for all of our agents, Emergency Instructions for Our Loved Ones. We shared it with each agent-loved one, talking it through and providing additional information as necessary.


If your situation is similar, if this need resonates with you, you may wish to develop something similar for your loved ones. If you like use our template:


Emergency Instructions for Our Loved Ones


If we should simultaneously become incapacitated or die, unable to help our loved ones with “next steps” of assisting with medical decisions, financial matters, or wrapping up our affairs, here is information you will need to get started.

AGENTS. First, you have been named as an agent on one of our estate planning documents, as follows:


* Showing primary agent (P) named in legal document, then first and second alternates (who will serve only if the primary is unavailable).


  STEPS. Once you learn of our emergency, take the following steps, more or less:

  1. Review steps. Review this list of steps, so that you can begin to develop a plan of action.
  2. Contact others. Contact the other agents, shown in the table above. Develop cooperative plans of action.
  3. Access complete instructions and documents. If we are incapacitated, you will need our Medical Directives and Durable Power of Attorney for Finances in your hands. Beyond that, and if we have died, you will need access to our home to handle our daily affairs—paying bills, maintaining the home, and so on. Finally, if we have died, you will want information to make final arrangements and wrap up our estates.


  • Our documents. All of our documents are filed in our Planner, stored in our home safe (access instructions provided separately). At the front of the Planner, complete instructions will lead you through the next days, weeks, and months.
  • Our home. Separately, we will provide each of you with instructions for gaining access to our home.


If your efforts today can lighten the load for your agent-loved ones, it will be effort very well spent. It is important to recognize how easily you can compile this information, but what an opaque, confusing undertaking it would represent for your grieving loved ones.


Melanie Cullen is the author of Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won’t Have To (Nolo), a workbook/CD-ROM for preparing and organizing your important records—for yourself and for your loved ones. She is a management consultant with TerraSys Consulting, Inc. and serves on the Projects@Work editorial board. She holds an MBA from the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University.


Image: Flickr Creative Commons/Mr. Mystery

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