I CALL IT MY “BIG BOOK.” I got the name from a Washington Post article about compiling all the information your family will need to navigate your life, should you become incapacitated or after you die. It can include your will, insurance information, investments, real estate deeds, car titles—even who gets the family china handed down from Grandma.
I started my big book in Dropbox, the cloud filing service I can access from home or away. Eventually, I became a paid subscriber because my information is so sensitive and irreplaceable that I never, ever wanted to lose it.
I toiled for four long years collecting the information my family might need to carry on after I was gone. Yes, I’m a professional procrastinator. I felt under no pressure to complete my terminal mission until 2020, when my wife fell and suffered a traumatic brain injury, just as COVID-19 was starting.
My wife’s condition kept her in hospitals and rehab for six months. Her recovery has been miraculous. A stranger can meet her today, have a 30-minute conversation, and probably never pick up that she has significant cognitive impairments. Her doctors, concerned for her safety and because she has partial vision loss, require someone to be with her at all times.
I’m 77 and our children range in age from 46 to 52. They’d been asking about our financial condition and health for years. My wife and I were reluctant to discuss anything with them. We felt they could cope with our demise simply by talking to our accountant and lawyer. Her recent health challenges changed my mind.
My wife is anxious and obsessed with how she’d carry on if I died before her. I wanted to complete the big book to help ease her worries. A few weeks ago, I reviewed my Dropbox files to see if anything was missing. While there wasn’t much to add, I got a bad feeling that my heirs wouldn’t be able to retrieve all the information from the cloud.
I needed a better way to share the big book with my three children, my wife’s two kids, my accountant and my lawyer. I wanted a secure system with compartmentalized access, as not everyone needs to see every document.
Fortunately, I discovered the Bublup organizational app last year. I’d used it in my consulting practice to store information for myself. To my surprise, it had the exact file-sharing abilities I needed for my big book. Moving folders and files from Dropbox was easy and fast. The real test was yet to come. Could my kids find what they needed easily?
I sent them a Bublup invite so they could spend some time poking around the app. Two kids who live nearby came over one night to ask me questions. I had the computer hooked up to the wall-mounted TV and I was able to locate answers to most of their questions fairly quickly.
They also asked questions that I hadn’t anticipated. I took notes to add the missing items later that night. My focus had been on their mom’s health, insurance, doctors and medical files. It never occurred to me to add my own health information for my children.
The next test was to show the big book to the kids who don’t live nearby. The recorded Zoom call with them lasted 90 minutes. In a blended family, indicating who inherits what can get complicated, especially because my wife and I maintain our assets separately.
I handled the list of bequests with an Excel spreadsheet that shows what would happen if one parent died today and the other died the next day. I ran two scenarios to cover all the bases, no matter which of us dies first. The examples were clear to everyone.
The children now understand that we have enough resources to live another 20 years and then some. More important, we both feel more comfortable that they completely understand our health issues and can care for whoever might need their help.
More than 20 years ago, my wife pushed to buy long-term-care policies for both of us. We purchased generous policies—which you can no longer buy—with a 5% annual increase in coverage and no dollar or time limit on care. That’s fortunate, as it turned out that my wife needed round-the-clock care for about 18 months after her fall, and now has a caregiver all day. I easily handle the nights and weekends.
We had experience caring for our parents, who wanted to stay at home in their later years. Their example was invaluable. We remodeled our home several times so we could age in place. We can even convert the den into a hospital room if needed. All the doorways and openings are wheelchair accessible. The stairs have chairlifts, and we might even win the prize for the most grab bars.
I was also fortunate to receive the help of a wonderful case manager when my wife was first hospitalized. It’s my fulltime job to manage all the details regarding doctors, surgeries, hospitals, rehab facilities, home care, occupational therapy and so on. According to the experts, it can take a team of up to 14 medical specialists to care for one traumatic brain injury patient.
Fortunately, when things got rough, we discovered new friends in high places who came to our aid. We’ve been very lucky to get this far. It could have been much worse. So far, I haven’t needed to pass the big book on to the family. It’s ready, though, for when it’s needed.
Richard Hayman is a second-generation family business owner and inventor with three patents. He studied engineering at Cornell University and received a master’s degree from George Washington University. After his family’s business was purchased by a public company in 1999, Richard went on to enjoy several additional careers. He’s also been a STEM instructor for middle and high school students in after-school technology programs. Richard’s previous article was Investing in Family.