In November 2016, Joan Nassivera had just had surgery and was recovering at her home in New Jersey, when her 59-year-old sister died.
Her sister’s home was in Florida and Nassivera was unable to fly south right away to pick up the many pieces of her sister’s life.
So many questions come up at a time like this, questions that you usually don’t have answers to: Who holds the mortgage? Is there a car payment due? Is there a will? And where?
“It was chaos!” Nassivera recalls of that time. “Not only does it take an immense amount of time and phone calls, it’s emotionally draining. I had to keep looking at her death certificate. It takes a toll.”
Nassivera could have used a Red Binder.
That’s the name many give to their folder of numbers and names assembled for just such an emergency, a one-stop place for every scrap of useful information.
Even though her sister had very close friends, she hadn’t created a red binder or shared the practical details of her life with any of her friends, she adds.
“That would have been very helpful,” Nassivera says.
What should be in the binder
Type all the requisite data on paper and update it quarterly. You can keep copies in the cloud or on a computer — but paper is easily accessed, photocopied, faxed, scanned and shared as needed.
Tell at least two trusted people exactly where they can easily find it. Even better, give them each a copy, especially if they live far away from you.
What it should include:
- Your medical history, including all surgeries, medications, recent tests/results, treatments and the names and contact information of your physicians and any other healthcare providers.
- What health insurance you use, how much you pay and when and to whom.
- The name, phone number and email contacts for your rent/mortgage and home, vehicle and life insurance. How much you owe to each, and when
- A list of every insurance agent, policy number and agents’ phone number
- All investment accounts and name(s) of brokers, financial planners and accountant
- Where to find tax records. Previous employers who might be paying a pension.
- Credit card numbers, payment due dates and how much you owe to each.
- All bank PINs
- All passwords
- A list of recurring monthly charges (subscriptions, memberships, etc), and where they are charged.
- A list of all property (where, who owns it, outstanding debts on it) and how to access it, if needed.
- Your pets, their names and medical records, whatever medications they take and the name and contact information for your vet and a trusted local friend or place to board a cat or dog if needed.
- Your wishes for burial or cremation
- A list of all friends and relatives you want notified and who to invite to your funeral, wake or memorial
A gift you give
For Jan van der Hoop, a Canadian business consultant, the red binder really was red, and proved a huge help when his father died in 2009 at the age of 84 — especially as van der Hoop was his only child.
It was so organized it even included 50 handwritten, signed, sealed and stamped notes to be delivered to his father’s friends, family and colleagues, he says.
“It literally was my Dad reaching out from the grave to those who meant so much to him and the echo it generated was such a gift. People would open up and tell me stories I’ve never heard before.”
One advantage of the binder is that it relieves shocked and grieving children or friends of the additional burdens and frustrations of having to untangle and manage your affairs quickly and efficiently.
“It was initially an inconvenience, but when the time came I wasn’t well-equipped to think and second-guess,” says van der Hoop. “It gave me a template to follow and it felt comforting.”
“It’s a process, something you need to think about,” says Bill Auth, a 68-year-old North Carolina-based photographer who lives with his 46-year-old daughter, who is also creating a binder of her own.
He urges those creating one to be sure to update it whenever they get a new debit or credit card or change their passwords. He began creating his own binder — “red, of course!” — in 2013, prompted by the sudden death of several family members.
He’s urged friends to do likewise, with mixed success, he admits. “It’s not a common topic.” The binder is also a “grab and go” to reach for in an emergency like a flood, for example, while a computer might get destroyed.
“It’s one of the kindest things you can do for the people left behind,” says Elizabeth McGrady, who lives in Portland, Maine and runs Angel Files, a service to help people create these detailed records, starting with a 50-question questionnaire.
She knows firsthand what it’s like to cope with a sudden death, having lost her own mother when McGrady was in her late 30s. “It’s not a will. It’s very different.
“It’s a gift you give to your friends and family.”