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  • July 27, 2015

At the end of 2012, my partner died suddenly. He was 40, I was 37, and our two kids were only three and six. His death from a rare heart condition was a devastating shock. But so was the matter of closing out his estate, something I assumed we were decades away from having to address.

In addition to being blindsided, our situation was somewhat complicated by a few other things: While we had been a couple for 10 years, had two kids together, and were registered domestic partners, we weren’t legally married. My partner didn’t have a will, life insurance, or any instructions about administering his affairs.

Dealing with things like paying his bills, filing his taxes, and accessing his bank account were not only emotionally exhausting and anxiety inducing, but expensive and complicated. Ultimately, I had to be court appointed the voluntary administrator of his estate and, separately, the financial guardian of my own children in order to transfer his bank account to them. (It now sits in an account they can access only when they reach 18.)

A year and a half after my partner died, so did my mom. My parents were on top of things, and there was a huge difference between my dad’s experience and mine. He finished dealing with my mom’s estate long before I finished handling my partner’s — and my mom had far more assets.

All of this could have been made a lot easier had we just put some fairly basic paperwork in place. And while some of it’s doubly important if you aren’t married, most of it is needed even if you are. Here are the five major things that I wish we had done before my partner’s death.

1. Draw Up Wills
This is so obvious, but so important. Contrary to popular belief, the state will not automatically seize your property if you don’t have a will. But dying “intestate” (without a last will) sure can make things messy by forcing someone to go through the complicated process of becoming a “voluntary administrator” of the estate.

So what should you consider when you actually sit down to do your will? Obviously, you want to think about where your assets will go, but a key aspect for parents is to establish a guardian and a trustee, in addition to an executor.

The guardian is the person responsible for making decisions for any minor children in the event that both you and your partner die. (This is not necessarily the person the child will live with, but it can be.) The trustee handles any money or trusts — it’s best if these are separate people. The executor should be someone you trust will make sure that your wishes are carried out.

Though they won’t go in a will, it’s a good idea to write letters to the guardians — to be read only in the event of your death. Like your will, these letters should be updated as your children get older and their needs change. These letters aren’t legally binding, but they help your guardian know what you want.

A lot of people think they need a lawyer to draw up wills, but it’s far better to make one on your own than not to do it at all. After her husband died suddenly in an accident, Chanel Reynolds started Get Your Shit Together, a website designed to help people organize their affairs. She says that people with $1 to $2 million in assets, custody issues, international citizenship, or who own a business should seek out legal help to write a will. But for “many, many people it can take a few hours and be free to a few hundred dollars,” she says. You can make wills on your own at Do Your Own Will and Willing.com.

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