The Best Present My Parents Gave Me

The best present my parents gave me wasn’t something sentimental, like a family heirloom, nor was it something extravagant, like a new car. In fact, if I had to guess at its purchase price, I would probably put it in the $4.99 plus tax category.

What was the gift? It was a binder — not the fancy kind with the see-through cover; just a plain white one of the no-muss-no-fuss variety. Its value, of course, lay in its contents, which included the following:

Copies of:

• My parents’ wills, powers of attorney and medical directives

• The receipt for their burial plots and the location of the cemetery and plot number

• Their bank and brokerage statements with the contact information of their broker

• Pension and retirement account information, including the names of the beneficiaries

• Insurance policies — health, disability, life and long-term care, with the contact information of the insurance agent

• The address of the bank where their safe deposit box is located and where the key is kept in their home

• The titles to their home and their cars and the location of the originals

The binder sits, unobtrusively, on my bookcase, probably gathering dust. I rarely think about it, except …

… when my father was diagnosed with lymphoma and my parents were suddenly plunged into the nightmare that is cancer. My mother was tremendously relieved that someone in the family had immediate access to this information, and my parents could devote their time and energy to my father’s medical treatments.

… or when I paid a condolence call to my friend who had recently lost her father. Although her father was not young, his death was sudden and unexpected. He alone had been in charge of the family finances and had not thought to share this information with his spouse or children. The burden of having to piece together the family finances in the midst of their mourning added greatly to the emotional stress the family was experiencing.hink Think about it. Does your family know whether you want to be buried in the cemetery with your parents or in a cemetery in Israel? Or whether you want to donate your body to science? If your loved ones don’t know the answers to these questions before the need for them arises, it is unlikely that they will stumble across this information in enough time for it to become a reality.

Think about that safe deposit key that you keep hidden in the back of the drawer with the rubber bands, paper clips and other kitchen junk. Do your loved ones even know that you have a safe deposit box? How long will it take them to find the key? And if they do eventually discover it, how will they know what bank or branch is the right one?

And think about the effect that technology has had on record keeping. Even as recently as a decade ago, bills and account statements would generally arrive in the mail and clue family members into the existence of bank accounts or retirements accounts. Now, many of us have elected to go “paperless.” Statements and financial documents come straight to our email inbox. Does anyone have the password to your computer and your email account? If they don’t, how will your loved ones find all of your accounts? Even if they have your passwords, some statements (like life insurance) come only once a year. Will someone still be monitoring your inbox a year after your passing?

Think about how hard you have worked all of your life to ensure that your spouse is taken care of after you’re gone or how hard you’ve tried to save a small inheritance to pass on to your children and grandchildren. Think about how you don’t want it to be lost because your loved ones don’t know it exists. Think about it.

Think about it some more, and then go out and buy that binder. It may be the best $5 you’ll ever spend.

Deborah Hamburger is the volunteer coordinator for pro bono services at Jewish Community Services. To learn more about how JCS can help you solve life’s puzzles, call 410-466-9200.

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