The "death box"

People sharing a handshake

Settling an estate is no easy task. It starts with the will, which every financially responsible person should have, but that is only the start. Retired estate planner Joan Burda, in an article for the American Bar Association’s Senior Lawyer magazine, discussed something she likes to call the “death box,” though the name given to the repository is not important. It’s the location of all critical documents that will be important for the end of life and for winding up an estate: funeral instructions, medical and legal documents, financial accounts, and the like. Interestingly, she warns against putting funeral instructions in the will, because in most cases the will is not read until after the funeral. In that case, the instructions are not likely to be followed.

The point of the death box is that everything is in one place, which will greatly simplify the job of the executor.

Candidates for inclusion

Here’s a partial list of items that belong in a death box.

    Personal information, including Social Security number

    Military service information

    Tax returns

    Monthly utility bills, with contact lists


    Debts—mortgages, auto loans, personal loans

    Credit cards, including card numbers and approximate balances

    Safe deposit box keys

    Bank accounts

    Retirement accounts

    Brokerage accounts

    Annuities, if any

    Trusts, if any

    Insurance policies—auto, homeowners, life

    Health insurance provider, and primary physicians

    Medicare card

    Long-term care insurance

    Disability insurance

    Real estate deeds

    Copy of the will

    Power of attorney

    Advance medical directive

    Name and contact information for attorney

    Birth certificate

    Marriage license

    Computer passwords

    Passwords or passkeys for mobile electronic devices, such as cell phones

    Social media accounts, including passwords

    Funeral arrangements, including location of the burial plot and any prepaid funeral arrangements


    Pet care arrangements

    A list of family members, friends, and organizations that should be informed of the death

The last word

Another idea for the death box is a final letter, or a series of letters to friends and loved ones. This is where family values might be articulated, and remembrances of life’s high points and significant events. One might express the hopes for the family’s future, for what might be accomplished with various bequests.

Ms. Burda reports that some people find the idea of last letters to be morbid, and such letters can be difficult to write, but “sometimes I hear from the families and am told how much that letter from mom or grandpa meant when they received it.”

She also suggests giving consideration to having a “farewell party” instead of a traditional wake. Instructions for the party may also be included in the death box.

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