Getting My Ducks in a Row

Julie Hansen is the winner of the an ebook of the Escape Claws. Please contact Linda Reilly at

Edith here, shivering north of Boston. Getting your ducks in a row, you say. Am I planning a fowl supper? Practicing target shooting? Identifying local water birds?

file9231275368332Nah. And those aren’t even in a row, anyway. The next ones are, almost, but that’s not what I mean, either.


Hugh and I have been filling out estate planning forms. It’s a huge undertaking, one which we started a couple of years ago but never finished.  With my sister’s recent and completely unexpected brush with death (she’s going to be fine, thanks to modern medicine and the power of prayer), I realized it’s really, really time. Because we never know when the Grim Reaper will pay us an irreversible visit.

So what’s involved for a sixty-something author to get her duckies all lined up and accounted for? Let me count the ways:

  • Listing assets.
  • Collecting account numbers, social security numbers, and birthdates in one place.
  • Specifying end-of-life wishes: deciding about extreme interventions when brain dead or terminally ill,  cadaver donation, cremation/burial/ashes disposition, and so on. We’re both already organ donors, so that part is done.
  • Settling on agreeable executors and health care proxies. Much of this is only in the case that the other one of us is unable, but that could come to pass, too.
  • Checking on whether we made a homestead declaration on the house we co-own.
  • Making sure my sons know where I keep my passwords and what goes with what.
  • Deciding on bequeathments to other than immediate family.
  • Thinking about what happens if we die at the same time, or if one is mentally incapacitated and still alive, or mentally fine but physically unable, and so on and on. The permutations are not quite endless but seem that way.
  • And more. I’m sure there are things I haven’t even thought of.

Then there’s the question of literary property. I wouldn’t ever pretend to be Sue Grafton (may her lovely soul rest in peace) or Stephen King, with a library of my extensive writings to donate somewhere. I do have novels in progress, though, series contracts, royalties that come along several times a year, and books in print, e-print, and audio. Some have suggested appointing a literary executor who could handle such matters. But I don’t know if I need one or not.

It’s enough to make a woman’s head spin. That said, I don’t want to leave any of it up in the air and make either Hugh or my sons have to make decisions that I should have dealt with while I was able. So off we both go, one line on the form at a time, one difficult decision after another. Because I know the relief will be immeasurable when our wills and estates, powers and proxies are legally documented and notarized.

Then I can start throwing out stuff from the basement. Or not. I have books to write, after all! The estate-planning process is a bit like writing a book, anyway. Doing research. Thinking about “suppose” and “what if.” Planning. Writing one line at a time.

Readers: What was involved for you to have your end-of-life stuff all squared away? Or do you? What have I forgotten that I need to do? Writers: Anybody out there have a literary executor? Does a modestly successful mid-list author need one?

41 Thoughts

  1. Still working on it (and I’ll be 70 by the end of the year). With no family living near deciding on a health care proxy is TOUGH.

      1. You are a wise couple! My husband and I made wills when our daughter was 12 and we needed to name a guardian. That’s not exactly relevant any more. We’re still arguing whether Daughter or one or another sister will be executrix. The pathetically small asset list is done. The only thing I can swear is covered is the burial plot: my sister and I co-own three (my choice is Sleepy Hollow in Concord, with a family plot right down the hill from Authors’ Ridge–I made sure the title was clear and the town knows about it).

  2. This is something my husband and I have been talking about doing for the last several years. We made wills when our sons were small so they’d have a guardian but since our youngest is turning 30 this week, I don’t think he needs a guardian anymore! I went to an estate planning seminar last year and got plenty of information. Ours would be fairly simple–it’s a matter of actually sitting down and doing it.

    1. The same happened with me! I looked back at the last will I’d made, after I was divorced, when I still had two sons in school. Now they are 29 and 31 and can take care of themselves.

  3. We wrote a will–once. I think we probably should revisit that, but The Hubby does not. He’s more interested in making sure we have everything for his father (who is in his 80s).

    So I guess my planning is more like a meme I saw: I do not have ducks. They are not in a row. I have squirrels and they are at a rave.

  4. Yes you do need to name a literary executor. It can be the same person as the executor of your will, but if so, then take the time to make sure that person has a basic understanding of the potential value of your work, published and unpublished, and is clear about whether or not you would want someone else to complete an unfinished project. Making that person acquainted with other writers and industry professionals you’d trust to answer their questions wouldn’t hurt either. And in your will, specify who gets future royalties, book by book if necessary.

  5. Being a lawyer, I’ve had a will in place since three weeks after my first child was born. It’s good to take a look at it every few years and update it.

  6. Hi! I’m in need of re-doing a lot … but suggest M.L.Buchman’s Estate Planning for Authors. Easy to understand — but, boy, does it suggest possibilities I’d never thought of …. definitely, check it out!

  7. When my Mom went to her heavenly home, hubby and I realized that with no children or close relatives that we needed to figure out the what and who on the event of our passing. As you have found out, it’s not near as easy as one would think. I started with a list and the list just kept growing as we would think of something else that had to be settled on. I think we have finally gotten it all together and documented. Well, let’s say nothings been added in two years so if we haven’t thought of it by now don’t figure we will. It all started out with lists of assets and where they were including policy numbers and account numbers. I think the last thing written down was every bit of information about our precious fur-baby. Hadn’t thought about him outliving us. Who would love him as much as we do and would gladly take him in as their very own. That list included name and number of his vet so they could get his records as well as food (and goodness gracious don’t forget the snacks he likes) and medicine list. We also made a list of utility companies with name and phone numbers so they would know who to call to shut them off.

    Can’t say I can add to your list of things to consider but I will say to make sure your wishes are legally binding. Every state is different in their rules and regulations, so just make sure your wishes are carried out according to your states requirements. Plus although you might not think you have any one that would protest your wishes, money or things of value seem to bring that long lost relative out of the woodwork. I speak from past experience on that one. Next reexamine everything at least once a year. Some things won’t change, but then again a lot might. One example is what happened to us. We sold out and moved to another town. Therefore assets changed, insurance companies changed, utility companies changed and so on. After taking them out and changing the information for our designated heir, we have decided that January 1 of every year we will take the papers out and scan over them again just to make sure nothing has changed. After all, all the forms and lists of important information does no one any good if it’s incorrect at the time of passing.

    Thankfully, the move also gave us the incentive to declutter and dispose of what we didn’t really want or need. Anything that’s left now is someone else’s problem as to what to do with. 🙂

    1. I volunteer with a dog rescue group. So I read your comment about your furbaby with a big YES. It’s important for people to consider their furkids in their plans. We have placed a number of dogs who outlived their uprights or who needed a new home because their owners needed to move to a nursing home. It’s very helpful to the executor of your estate if you’ve provided guidance. It will be helpful to both the executor and the furbaby during a difficult time.

  8. Big issue! I have started on some of the listing. Also had a brief talk with my son about his guiltless duty if I need to be put in a home, if my brain doesn’t function anymore at some point. However, learning more everyday from older friends and relatives whose situations may or may not be stable. Financial considerations, long term care, ability to be independent, home being navigable…and on and on. I have one friend who refers to building her “exit strategy” with her husband as they have no children and almost no one close. Then the law part…my lawyer has switched to divorces and custody cases exclusively. Now I need to look for a lawyer for a will. All things change!!!
    And thanks to Lea Wait’s suggestion for getting the book listed above is invaluable!

  9. Thanks, Edith, for detailing a very important issue. We’ve taken care of all the legal stuff, but lists of account and policy numbers is something I haven’t gotten around to. Thanks for the reminder to finish up with the ducks.

  10. We went through this a couple of years ago, and then our attorney promptly moved to another state, after promising to keep us updated quarterly. Obviously, that has not happened.

    However, it was a much-needed exercise for us. Our daughters are now 33 and 30, and the will we had in place two years ago still stipulated that my oldest daughter, now 47, would be their guardian, if she so chose (she was still in her 20’s then). Now we also have a farm in Kentucky (with rental units), in addition to our home, and the studio property my husband’s family has owned for fifty years, along with intellectual property from both of us.

    The most difficult part for us was fairly dividing assets that mostly came from my husband’s family among our own two children, plus my daughter from my first marriage. Boy, that was a toughie. We also have different executors, since we each relate to the girls in different ways.

    In the end, the intellectual property is not going to be an issue. But it was such a massive problem at first.

    1. That is complicated, Karen. Hugh didn’t have any children with his first wife, so that makes certain things simpler and certain things more sticky.

  11. Bill and I have done this once, but that was back when the kids needed a financial guardian, we had to provide for his mother and we lived in a different state. Sigh. Probably time to do it again.

  12. Absolutely brilliant blog, and thank you for the firm reminder! Major life changes do require a re-examination of all these arrangements, and it can be truly tragic for family members when a will has not been updated for decades. I’ve seen that both professionally, and personally, with close relatives. A failure to revisit and revise in view of changes in property ownership can gut your intention to make prudent provision for family members. But contemplating death is difficult for all of us, and getting the difficult chore done requires discipline. (My ducks have been devoured or scattered – I have to go find them before I can put them in a row. Much like cobblers and their barefoot children, lawyers are some of the greatest procrastinators in this area.)

  13. Thanks for the reminder, Edith!
    It’s one of those things we keep saying we need to get done and haven’t. As a few folks have mentioned, our “current” will was done ages ago when our kids were little and would need a guardian. Our son is 39 and our daughter will be 35 in April – so yeah – we need to do a currently current will.
    I’ll also check out Lea’s recommendation for us authors.

  14. This is a very timely reminder since we are about to start gathering information for our yearly taxes to be done. Letting children know where you store your tax returns is a good thing, too. We learned after my mother died that you must return the social security check for the month that the person died even if they die on the last day of the month. We had to help my dad with his taxes that year as many places need to receive an official death notice. I am reading an interesting new book right now entitled: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson. She writes about getting not only your paperwork in order for those left behind, but also your household. There are some good points included. Thanks Edith for this post!

  15. After another hospital stay for my father, we decided it was time to get some stuff in order. I am not on his checking and banking accounts. I have been named his executor in case of any incapacity and also executor of his will. We got his living will done too. Now my mother is another story, but we will get there soon. I have already told my family I want my body donated to science so there will be no burial expenses and they can harvest my organs for those in need. Since I have m/s science may want my brain, who knows. I know my parents/brothers will take care of my dog and for me that is the most important thing for me. I have my passwords written down and my younger brother knows most of them. That is about it for me so far. I think everyone needs to think about these things before you need to do it.

    1. I agree completely, Kay. Hugh and I are planning to donate our bodies to a medical school after any organ donation. His parents had a similar arrangement. When the med school was done with the cadaver, they cremate it and return the ashes to the family – all at no cost.

      1. I am glad I am not the only one. Some of my friends think I am crazy. It just makes sense for everyone and helps so many in the process. Thanks again for tackling a subject that most would not, but that needs to be!!

  16. As a probate paralegal, you have just described my day job! Glad that you are taking care of it. You would be surprised at the number of people who don’t and the consequences can be sad.

  17. I finally did this 2 years ago. The most difficult part since I had no spouse or children was deciding what to do with any assets I might have. My only living brother is 13 years older than me. My family has one of the inherited forms of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and we’ve lost 12 including my sister and one nephew, and have 2 with it now. I knew I wanted 50% of my estate designated for ALS research. I finally decided the remaining portion would go to my nieces and nephews. I’ve also given permission for regular organ donation or for ALS research. I set up Durable Power of Attorney and Medical wishes. I already have my plot, stone, and vault in the cemetery where my parents and other family members are buried. One odd thing happened a few years ago when I was attending the burial of a cousin. I looked down and realized I was standing on my own headstone. I didn’t realize that once you paid for it they set it in place. My plot is next to my nephew who died of ALS. His widow will be cremated and placed in his plot.

  18. Thanks for this, Edith. I need to update all my stuff too. I have a will, but it was written before I had pets or books published. My beneficiary has already agreed to take care of the cats if I die, but best to put everything in writing!

  19. Mid -60’s and still at the point of saying, “We need to…” . We have no children so if one dies, everything automatically goes to the other but as you mentioned, there are so many things to consider. I have done a password list, and re done and redone because we have to change fairly often but one that is out of date, isn’t going to help anyone. Thanks for the reminder. Good luck with your fun task!

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