The file of life

Life is complicated – organise as best you can, while you can.
It's a good idea to do an ‘audit’ of your affairs to establish whether important documents are up to date and easy for others to understand. Image: Shutterstock

Some people are just more organised than others, and the value of being organised takes on a whole new dimension when you are no longer here – because even strong, independent and level-headed people can experience shock and paralysis when a partner or close family member dies, says Angélique Visser, vice-chair of the Fiduciary Institute of Southern Africa (Fisa).

Having your affairs in order will help those you have left behind deal with matters in an organised and less traumatic manner.

Relevant documents

Visser suggests a Life File that contains all the relevant documentation required to wind down your estate. Depending on each individual’s affairs it can become quite a daunting task to obtain all the documents needed.

The basic information may include your living will if you have one, your last will and testament, marriage certificate and anti-nuptial contract, divorce order and agreement, title deeds of properties, vehicle registration certificates, bank statements, city council statements, a list of insurance policies, lease agreements and details of a funeral policy or death benefits.

Visser advises that it may be necessary to do an “audit” of your affairs in order to establish whether the terms of contracts or policies are up to date and clearly understandable.

Some insurance policies stipulate that if a property is unoccupied for more than 30 days, there will be no cover in the event of theft or damage.

Some life insurance policies stipulate that a person must survive an event (such as a heart attack, aneurism or cancer) for a specified period for the policy to pay out. It is crucial to include a clause in a living will that requires a discussion with your financial advisor about any financial implications before life support is switched off.

“It may sound harsh, but it is important if there are minors or a surviving spouse.”

Important contact numbers

Include all the latest contact details of your nominated executor, financial advisor, accountant, tax advisor or attorney in your Life File.

Many people also include the details of the person who can take care of their pets, who has an extra key or remote to access the property, or the name and details of the person who can step in when you own your own business.

Visser says people are in shock when they lose someone and things like the continued payment of services such as the electricity bill, short-term insurance on the house, contents and vehicles, telephone bills, subscriptions, and medical aid contributions are not uppermost in their minds.

Having all that information on hand makes a painful experience more manageable. 

Access to information

Some of our legislation, particularly the Protection of Personal Information Act, makes it extremely difficult to access personal information. On top of that, most people have password-protected their electronic equipment (cell phones and computers), bank accounts and other financial affairs. Visser recommends keeping a list of passwords where only trusted people can obtain access to it.

Business owners should include additional documents such as the shareholders’ agreement, shareholder certificates, the details of the person who has signing powers on the business bank accounts, details of the accountant, a set of the latest financial statements and the details of the person who will step in when you are gone.

Without a Life File, getting hold of some of these documents may prove to be extremely cumbersome and potentially expensive, says Visser.

“A power of attorney is only valid for as long as you are able to revoke it, which you will not be able to do if you are in a coma or if you died.”

Visser says the only person who will be allowed to access your information will be the executor of the estate. It could take a few days, or a few months, before the Master of the High Court issues a Letters of Executorship which will allow the executor to deal with your affairs.

“If the executor has to play the role of an investigator it can delay the winding up of the estate and increase the costs,” she says. “If there is conflict in the family and some of the members do not want to cooperate, it can become a battle to find the information.”

Keep it up to date

Visser adds that it will be prudent to review your Life File once a year, or when there are any important changes in your life, such as getting married or divorced, buying or selling a property, leasing a property, starting a business, the birth of a baby or the death of a partner.

She advises business owners to contact their fiduciary practitioner and request guidance on the information they will need to compile a comprehensive Life File.

It may sound obvious but inform a close family member or your executor where you keep the file.

Brought to you by the Fiduciary Institute of Southern Africa (Fisa).



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Very sensible advice!

I have compiled all of this info into a single document an Xcel spreadsheet – with multiple tabs – where I have made a list of my:

Assets & liabilities; Personal documents (for the whole family!);
Financial budget – shown on a monthly basis shown for the calendar year;
Investments and their performance charts;
Computer and phone passwords and pin numbers;
House key-numbers for all gates and rooms;
List of Notes (general notes for the surviving spouse/kids/executor on the Do’s and Dont’s of how to best handle all this stuff going forward).

I embed scans or photos of all important documents into this Xcel file (with instructions where to find the physical originals). This gives executor clear idea of what look for if document is unusual or has gone through several revisions).

Important to regularly review details, and update stuff you find you missed.

I revise annually on my birthday (or whenever a significant change occurs).

Then save the old worksheet under its own separate, dated tab.

That way, you (and the executor) has a picture of how your circumstances (and thoughts!) have changed over the years.

This was quite the exercise to set up initially, but has now, after several years and many iterations, become a really useful LIVING document. My go-to reference document on a weekly basis now!

Have encourage rest of family and friends to do same. And have learnt a lot from sharing the template with others. There’s always someone who adds a better idea or wrinkle!

Of course, security of this type of document has to be paramount.

I keep a copy in Microsoft One Drive Vault (allowed 3 files for free). As well as copies on 2 memory sticks stored in separate safes.

Never keep these files in permanent state on any pc or laptop (too easy to get hacked or stolen).

End of comments.



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