Personal finance

‘Sorry I am dead’: Why a ‘death note’ is as important as having a will, advisor says

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“Sorry I am dead.”

This is how Doug Boneparth, a certified financial planner, starts what he calls a “death note” to his wife, Heather.

Such a document, he says, is distinct from other estate-planning cornerstones like drafting a will, which lays out one’s wishes for how to distribute assets upon death. (Otherwise, state law decides for you.)

A death note is more informal — it isn’t necessarily legally binding — but no less important, said Boneparth, president and founder of Bone Fide Wealth, based in New York, and a member of CNBC’s Advisor Council.

Its contents aim to ease the administrative work assumed by loved ones when you die.

“This letter is more to help you take control at a time when everything feels out of control,” Boneparth writes in The Joint Account, a couples and money newsletter he pens with his wife. “It fills in gaps and provides immediate access to information that your estate planning documents typically don’t.”

What to include in your death note

A death note may break down all a decedent’s financial accounts — savings, credit cards, investments and insurance, for example — along with associated account numbers and login information.

Likewise for accounts associated with regular household bills: a mortgage, utilities (such as electricity, water, gas, internet and phone), car insurance, gym memberships and streaming services, for example.

It may also include more under-the-radar information: important points of contact like one’s estate planning attorney, accountant, business contacts and close friends — anyone who may be instrumental in assisting loved ones during the first steps after your death, Boneparth said.

Those loved ones will likely also need access to your computer and phone if you die. Such a “digital dilemma” can be overcome by disclosing login info for devices and credentials for any sort of master password manager, he said.

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“When people are left behind, they’re already mourning and distraught,” said Winnie Sun, co-founder of Sun Group Wealth Partners, based in Irvine, California, and a member of CNBC’s Advisor Council. By drafting a note, “you give them time to grieve while making their lives a lot easier because everything is nicely organized.”

Otherwise, “it’s just mayhem,” she said.

Sun refers to this concept not as a death note, but as the assembly of one’s “financial first aid kit.” (She breaks down the relevant pieces of it here.)

Don’t forget social media accounts, physical items

One’s online presence is also an important element of a death note, the advisors said. For example, how would you like your social media accounts and professional websites managed after you die? Should they live on in perpetuity or be deleted?

When Sun’s father passed away, the family was able to access his social media accounts and download content like photos they wished to preserve.

“It’s not just about money; it’s about memories we wanted to keep,” Sun said.

Additionally, don’t forget the “more practical items” in your note: the location of spare keys to the house, car or safe, as well as any physical documents like life insurance policies, home deeds or car titles, Boneparth said.

Don’t keep it secret

Update your note once a year or when there’s a significant life change (opening a new bank account, buying property, getting a new loan, for example), the advisors recommended.

Importantly, don’t keep your note secret — tell your loved ones that you’ve drafted it and where to find it, they said.

It’s not just about money; it’s about memories we wanted to keep.
Winnie Sun
co-founder of Sun Group Wealth Partners

Boneparth printed out his note and keeps it in a safe at home. Others may wish to keep theirs in a bank safety deposit box, for example, and have a digital copy.

Ultimately, thinking about one’s wishes and giving clarity to those we leave behind after death “is an act of love — not fear,” he wrote.

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