Ever thought about what will happen to your home after you shuffle off this mortal coil? Sounds a bit dark, right? But let’s face it, planning for the end of life isn’t just about wills and funeral arrangements. It involves a lot more, including what’s going to happen to your beloved abode. Whether you’re living in a classic mid-century, a cute little bungalow, or a chic apartment, it’s essential to include your home in your end-of-life planning. We discussed with experts on the details of end of life planning for your home: Karen J. Sneddon, Dean of the Mercer University School of Law 

Why Should I Include My Home In End-of-Life Planning?

The first thing you may be asking is “Why should I care for planning the end of life of my home?” We all have at least a baseline understanding of the effects a loved one’s passing can have on the entire family. Studies have found the death of a family member can seriously impact the remaining members, especially when it comes to dealing with what’s been physically left behind.

Let’s look at a well-known example. Remember Aretha Franklin, known as the Queen of Soul? She wasn’t just a singer and songwriter but also an influential civil rights activist. Her vibrant career spanned many decades, enchanting the world with her soulful music.

But here’s the kicker: when Aretha passed away in 2018, she left behind a valuable estate but no will or trust to guide its distribution. Her family was left in a whirlwind of legal and financial chaos, along with the emotional pain of their loss. What a mess.

By including your home in end-of-life planning, you’re not just checking off another box on your to-do list. It’s more than that. It’s a gesture of love and kindness towards those who will mourn your loss. By taking these steps, you can ease their legal and financial burdens and prevent any added stress during an already tough time. Plus, it ensures that your wishes for your home are respected, offering a sense of peace to everyone involved.

“Individuals are unique with unique property interests and unique relationships. By not planning, the individuals can create confusion about who should receive what,” warns Karen J. Sneddon, the dean of Mercer University School of Law.

What we really should be asking ourselves is “Why wouldn’t we include our homes in our end-of-life plans?” It seems like a no-brainer when you look at it like that. But what’s involved in considering your home and the things in it after you’re no longer here to care for them? Dean Sneddon advices, “Individuals often wait to do estate planning until making a variety of end-of-life decisions. But it is never too early to start think about estate planning”

Legally Prepare Your Home

Estate planning isn’t just a task reserved for the wealthy. It’s like an intricate game of chess — you’re making strategic moves to ensure that your home and everything you’ve worked hard for are in the right hands when you can’t take care of them anymore. Sometimes people get confused between ‘probate’ and ‘end of life planning’.

Dean Sneddon highlights the difference between probate and estate planning: “Probate is a formal court process that helps with the transfer of certain property when the owner dies. This process may also be called estate administration. Estate planning is a broader term that refers to the process by which a person places how to ensure their loved ones are taken care of and their wishes are respected by the creation of legally enforceable documents. Those documents may include a will, a life insurance contract, a retirement plan beneficiary designation, or a multi-party bank account.”

It’s not just about your house only — it’s way beyond that. So let’s get the ball rolling and make some savvy moves.

First things first. Take a deep breath, grab a pen and paper, and start making a comprehensive list of all your physical assets. Big things like homes, cars, and property, yes, but also your favorite recliner, mother’s antique ring, and even your prized garden gnome collection — everything that’s tangible and has value. Think of this list as your game board, allowing the executor of your will to see all the pieces in play when the time comes.

After you’ve got your physical assets down, it’s time to think about your non-physical assets. They might be invisible, but they’re just as real. These are things like your bank accounts, retirement savings, investments, insurance policies, and the digital footprint you leave behind. Having a detailed list of these assets will ensure that nothing falls through the cracks during the execution of your estate.

Think of transfer on death (TOD) designations as a secret shortcut in your game of chess. They’re a powerful tool that can help your assets bypass the time-consuming and often costly process of probate. They allow your assets to go straight into the hands of your chosen beneficiaries. It’s like giving your assets a backstage pass to your loved ones.

Here’s where you make your strategic moves. In the absence of a will or other legal documents, state laws will determine the distribution of your assets. “Each state has statutes that direct what happens to an individual’s property on death if that individual has not created any legally enforceable documents to direct the disposition,” says Dean Sneddon. “By not planning, individuals can create confusion about who should receive what.” Avoiding this confusion is crucial, especially when it concerns your home and valuable assets. 

Drafting a will allows you to decide who gets what, when, and how. It provides a clear roadmap of your wishes, preventing any potential family squabbles or court battles that could occur if you left things up to chance. If you recall the story about Aretha Franklin, you’ll understand the importance of this step.

Choosing the right executor is as critical as choosing your chess champion. This person will be tasked with carrying out your wishes per your will. It’s a heavy responsibility, so pick someone trustworthy, responsible, and able to handle the job.

Estate laws can be a tricky puzzle. But don’t worry, an experienced estate attorney is like having a guide to help you navigate through the complex process. They’ll ensure your chess moves are legal and that your game strategy is rock solid.

As we reach the end of this part of our journey, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on simplicity. It’s always a good idea to declutter, whether it’s your closet or your bank accounts. Simplifying where possible makes it easier for your executor and your beneficiaries. It’s kind of like clearing the chessboard of unnecessary pieces, allowing everyone to focus on the key components of your game plan.

You might be wondering — how does this idea of decluttering translate into preparing my physical space for the end of life?

Physically Prepare Your Home

Ever heard of Swedish death cleaning? Don’t be taken aback by the name, it’s not as morbid as it sounds. It’s a thoughtful and considerate practice rooted in the heart of Swedish culture. Let’s dive into this little-known art that can bring great benefits to your loved ones after you’ve passed.

Pioneered by author Margareta Magnusson in her 2017 book “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter,” Swedish death cleaning is rooted in streamlining your belongings to ease the burden on your family after you’re gone. It’s like decluttering, but with an end-of-life perspective.

Imagine it this way — you’re paring your physical possessions to the essentials, sparing your loved ones the hefty task of sifting through a lifetime’s worth of items. You’re focusing on the bigger picture — what you leave behind and how your family will interact with it. It’s an act of love wrapped in wisdom and foresight. There aren’t fixed rules, but rather a path to follow, much like walking through a well-loved garden, pruning as you go.

Starting this process can feel overwhelming, especially when you’re dealing with items close to your heart. Here’s a trick: begin with less emotionally charged items like that old coat you haven’t worn in years or the outdated kitchen gadgets gathering dust. Doing this can help you build momentum and make the task less daunting as you move to more sentimental items.

As you move through each room, it can be helpful to categorize items into different groups — items to donate, items to toss, keepsakes to pass on to family now, and so on. This will bring a sense of order to what might seem like chaos and help you make progress more efficiently.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and your lifetime of belongings won’t be sorted in one either. It’s essential to set achievable goals for this process. Consider working in time chunks and remember that it’s okay to take longer with items carrying strong memories. The point isn’t to rush but to find peace in the process.

As you work through your belongings, don’t forget to involve your loved ones. Conversations about the sentimental value you’ve attached to certain items can lead to a deeper understanding of one another. It’s also a golden opportunity to pass on stories and memories associated with the objects you’ve cherished.

One essential aspect of Swedish death cleaning is cultivating an awareness of your consumption habits. After this exercise, you might find yourself buying less, choosing quality over quantity, and valuing experiences over things. It’s a mindset that not only benefits you but also leaves a smaller footprint for your loved ones to navigate later.

In our digital age, physical clutter isn’t the only thing we leave behind. Think about digital files, photos, emails, and social media accounts — all these need sorting too. Organizing your digital space can be just as important as organizing your physical one. Ensuring your online life is easy to access can be an immense help to your loved ones in the future.

Embarking on this journey of Swedish death cleaning might not be easy, but remember, it’s a profound act of love. You’re leaving behind a clearer, cleaner space filled only with what truly matters. Isn’t that a beautiful legacy to pass on?

Final Remarks

There you have it — we’ve walked through the legal, financial, and physical preparations for your home in light of end-of-life planning. While it may seem like a complex task, remember that it’s all about love, thoughtfulness, and leaving behind a clean, manageable slate for your loved ones. From estate planning to Swedish death cleaning, each step is a way to show care for those who will be remembering us. After all, it’s the memories and loves we share that truly make a house a home, isn’t it? 

Our Expert

Karen J. Sneddon was appointed dean of Mercer University School of Law in Macon, Georgia on May 31, 2023, after serving as interim dean since Oct. 1, 2021. She previously served as associate dean for faculty research and development and professor of law. Dean Sneddon teaches, writes, and presents in the areas of legal writing and trusts & estates. After graduating summa cum laude from Tulane Law School, she practiced in the area of trusts & estates. Two years later, she became a Forrester Fellow at Tulane Law School before joining the Mercer faculty in 2006. She has been a Visiting Professor of Law at the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and taught a short course in Comparative Succession at ELTE Law, Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary.

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Alexis Bennett


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