Lessons learned from my mother’s passing

It has been a while since I posted to Forward From 50, and I apologize for that. Everything came to a screeching halt in March when I had to head back up to Wisconsin to contend with my mother’s illness and eventual death.

However, a lot has happened since then, including a trip to Texas and a business conference in Nashville. Through it all, I have had time to reflect on what Forward From 50 is today and what it needs to become.

I’m back in Arizona now and anxious to get back to work helping people over 50 to passionate pursue purpose for their lives. So stay tuned. I have lots of helpful and interesting things planned.

My mother had been sick for a long time. In fact, she underwent cancer treatments in 2019 and again in 2021, all of which were designed to give her a bit more time. The treatments accomplished that purpose. Yet, what she did with the extra time was truly sad. I learned several lessons from this experience.

First, when given extra time through the miracles of modern medicine, DON’T SQUANDER IT.

My mother opted instead to sit at her kitchen table consuming endless hours of political news and YouTube videos. Although we had begged her to get her affairs in order and to do something to help her family remember her on a more personal level, she chose to do her own thing in what little time she had left.

For example, we were told she had updated her will and that her estate was in order. But, in my mother’s final days, my sister, who was tagged to serve as executor, could not find that document. The only will she could find had been written nearly 15 years earlier, and it left off important information and people.

Fortunately, my sister was able to cobble together a codicil for my mother to sign mere days before her death. That document truly reflected her final wishes.

So, I encourage people over 50 to look at their will and trust documents to make sure they accurately reflect their life situation and final wishes. Dying without a will causes unnecessary inconvenience to family members because a court must make or approve anything to do with the estate.

Create a ‘Red Book’

It is surprising how many people do not do this, and my mother was no exception. Before you pass away, you can do your children and, especially, your executor, a tremendous favor if you provide some key information.

A few years ago, I started assembling what I called the “Red Book.” It’s actually a large red three-ring binder full of important documents and critical information. When I die, my children know where to find the Red Book. It contains:

  • A Do Not Resuscitate order signed by me and witnessed my my doctor. There should be absolutely no question as to what I wanted done if I was incapable of expressing that myself.
  • A durable healthcare power of attorney.
  • A living will, allowed by the State of Arizona, to provide instructions for end-of-life care.
  • Passwords or instructions on how to access them.
  • A list of important information, such as Social Security number, birthdate, birthplace, driver’s license number and passport identification number.
  • Names, addresses and phone numbers of important contacts, such as my lawyer, accountant, doctors, etc.
  • A list of every bank account I have, along with the address and phone number of the financial institution.
  • Information about my Christian Healthcare Ministries bill-sharing account, which would cover my final medical expenses.
  • A list of every credit account I have, along with the account number, phone number, address, user name and password so my daughters can access it
  • A list of recurring payment accounts that will need to be cancelled upon my death, such as cell phone, Netflix and Dropbox.
  • A list of all assets and their location.
  • A list of all debts and loans, with current balances and account numbers.
  • Insurance policies and instructions on how to file claims.
  • A sample obituary. All my daughters need to do is fill in the date I died and the cause, if desired.
  • My last will and testament, signed of course.
  • A codicil to the will listing specific items I want distributed to certain people.
  • My original birth certificate and a copy of my divorce decree, if needed.
  • A copy of my U.S. Air Force discharge documents.
  • A copy of my Veterans Administration application for benefits.
  • A list of people to notify upon my death, along with phone numbers and email addresses.

I update that information every quarter, and truly wish my mother had done the same. She promised she would…”someday.” Without it, my sister and I had to piece together that giant puzzle.

Go through your stuff

This is one thing my mother attempted to do. She had moved and stored, moved and stored boxes of things she had accumulated over the years. In the end, there were still a lot of things my sister, daughters and I had to sort through to decide whether it was important or worth keeping.

In their book, The Fourth Quarter of Your Life, authors Allen Hunt and Matthew Kelly, strongly encourage people to declutter their lives. Over a lifetime, we all tend to accumulate massive amounts of stuff. When we fill up a closet, we move it to the garage. When we fill up the garage, we move it to the attic. When that starts to overflow, we often rent storage space and move it there.

Allen and Matthew suggested looking at each item, and then sort it into two categories:

  • Things that you need
  • Things that bring you great joy

Throw everything else away. Or, better yet, donate it to someone who either needs it more or will enjoy it.

Compared to what my mother had been storing for many years, she had whittled it down to a room full of stuff. Yet, that included a big folder of minutes from Cub Scout meetings in 1969, and every greeting card or letter she had received from anyone over the past 50 years. Throw in school projects my sister and I created in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as anything drawn by our own children, and it still amounted to many boxes.

If she ever looked at them, I suppose the greeting cards and drawings may have given her joy, but it’s doubtful the other ancient records served any purpose — especially files she retained from the job she retired from 20 years earlier.

Sell your U.S. savings bonds

My mother came from a generation where it was a patriotic duty to buy and hold U.S. savings bonds.

My sister found six bonds upon her death, as well as handwritten and printed lists showing the numbers and issue dates for nearly 60 bonds. So, where were the others?

The U.S. Treasury Department did not have any record of those being electronic bonds or of an online account where the bonds were purchased. After weeks of research and hours on hold trying to get answers from the Treasury, we concluded my mother had sold the 60 bonds and used those proceeds to buy the six larger bonds.

If you are holding on to any U.S. Savings Bonds, I strongly encourage you to sell them now and stick the cash in a CD instead. Here is why:

  • With current federal debt standing at $32 TRILLION and counting, the federal government will be insolvent soon. When that happens, who will get paid first? Corporations and contractors, local government entities, federal workers, or you?
  • The process to cash U.S. Savings Bonds is burdensome and not at all secure. In the past, people could take bonds to a bank and walk out with cash. Today, the bonds have to be mailed to the federal government, along with a signed and notarized form listing the serial number of every bond and its value. Once received, the money is supposed to be directly deposited in a checking account. I’m still waiting.
  • The interest earned on U.S. Savings Bonds is only 1.5 percent, and it is paid twice a year, depending upon when the bonds were purchased. Generally, interest is calculated at the six-month and anniversary date. For a bond purchased in August, if you cash it in June, you get zero interest.

Savings bonds may have been an admirable way to save for the future, but there are a vast number of better and safer options today.

Paid on death accounts

One thing my mother did that really helped was to set up some bank accounts to be paid upon her death to my sister and I. That is an incredibly easy way to dispose of assets. Best of all, doing so bypasses the probate court entirely.

The account is closed and a check issued to whomever is listed as the paid on death (POD) beneficiary. For investment accounts and retirement accounts, listing a beneficiary also works to more easily dispose of assets.

However, it was surprising how difficult the financial institutions handling my mother’s small investments made it to close the accounts. They tried mightily to retain control of the funds in new IRAs owned by the two of us.

I do not have a POD on any of my bank accounts. That is something I plan to remedy before June ends.

In addition to helping people identify and passionately pursue a purpose for their lives after turning 50, Forward From 50 will also start providing information to help seasoned citizens make life easier for their survivors.

When we are in the fourth quarter of our lives, we should not squander a single moment. We also want to leave a wonderful legacy for our children, grandchildren and friends.