Final preparation

How prepared are you for either your own or a loved one’s death?

It’s estimated that only around 15% of all South Africans have a will. While many people think they have so little of value that a will is unnecessary, there are still legal requirements, as set out in the Intestate Succession Act of 1987.

If a person were to die without a legal will – intestate – the government will divvy up what’s left according to a set formula. For example, if you have one spouse and no descendants, the whole estate goes to the spouse. If there is no spouse but there are descendants, the total estate is divided equally between descendants. Spouse and descendants? Spouse gets R125 000 and the rest of the estate is split equally between descendants. There are a host of provisions in the act, including parents only, parent and descendants – but it doesn’t take cognisance of any special provisions that the deceased may have verbally agreed.

Like a favoured artwork or set of silver spoons. Unless it’s in writing and legally witnessed, there’s little point to laying claim to it. And if there are siblings and no will ... there is frequent squabbling! (Note that anyone who stands to inherit anything cannot be a witness to your will!) So having a will is important. But so is having a file of all relevant information – and keeping it updated. Someone in the family also needs to know where the file is kept or at least how to access it for when the time comes.

It’s an interesting exercise to go through a checklist contained in a handy little booklet by Arthur G Clarke and Sherlayne McFarlane. Called Estate Planning: Putting your affairs in order, the booklet is a wonderful resource, containing a wealth of information and handy resources like checklists and templates of what to do.

For example, things like account numbers, insurance policy documents and numbers, any investments and shares – especially if there is any money overseas. More important is a list of passwords for online banking and even things like social media accounts. Have you notified anyone to close down your online presence in the event of your death?

What if you are incapacitated either through dementia or stroke? Have you specified any medical directives regarding on-going life support? If both you and your spouse are killed in an untimely accident, is there anyone else who knows where your file with important information is – or even where the spare keys are? These questions might appear a bit harsh and unseemly but the more prepared one is, the less traumatic it is for those left behind to deal with the fallout. It’s even advised to make preparation for your funeral. (Did you know that you can rent or hire a coffin for the funeral and then be buried or cremated in the proverbial pine box?)

By being organised in having a will and appointing a suitably qualified executor, it also speeds up the process of finalising the estate rather than prolonging the trauma for your family or descendants.

Your will should be legally witnessed and regularly updated, along with your important document file. Any special bequests – silver spoons, vinyl record collection, vintage Harley Davidson – needs to be spelled out and put in black and white so there can be no misunderstandings.

The most valuable thing you can do is to discuss death and your wishes with your family. It needn’t be a huge family meeting, just a quiet, calm word with one or two members who you trust and who you know will carry out your wishes. Ask them – in writing – if there is anything specific they would like to remember you by. A painting, photo, CD, workshop equipment or whatever, and list it in the file so there can be no misunderstandings. Being prepared can provide family peace of mind.