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How to get your stuff together before life goes sideways

Death can be tough to talk about, but some low-effort planning could make a difficult time much easier for both you and your loved ones. What you need to have ready.

SAN ANTONIO — It was a typical Friday evening for Chanel Reynolds in 2009 when she got a call.

“I knew something wasn’t right,” she said. “It turns out my husband had been struck by a van while riding his bicycle. But there was something about the tone in the voice that let me know that it was really serious and his injuries were overwhelmingly unrecoverable. Then a week after he was admitted to the hospital, I removed medical support because he physically or mentally was never going to be able to come back. He never regained consciousness after the accident.”

Her life suddenly went sideways.

“I found myself at 39 a recently widowed single mom of a young child and still a stepmother to his daughter from a previous relationship,” said Reynolds. “So navigating what to do now, all the things I didn’t know and how to make and continue to make an abundant family work were all giant questions, along with what was the password to his phone? How much money do we have? How do I go from a two-income family to a one-income family overnight?”

She was not prepared.

“There was a moment very early in the hospital where I was actually standing in the ICU and said to a friend: ‘Oh my God, I don’t have sh*t together,” she said.

So she founded Get Your Sh*t Together to help others prepare for the worst. It begins with having that hard conversation with a loved one about what they want when they die. Where to start on a topic no one likes to talk about? She said to ask for specific directions.

“Start off by saying it’s really important for me to be able to support you and advocate for you as best I can in any circumstance,” Reynolds said. “Please tell me what the most important thing to you is. What does quality of life mean to you? How can I, if someone asked me to speak for you, how can I make sure that I’m doing what you want rather than what I’m guessing?”

Then get the documents together. Without them, you leave loved ones guessing about your wishes. Three are critical. Begin with a will.

“Everybody should have a will and that decides who gets your stuff and your money and who’s in charge of making those decisions for you,” said Reynolds. “How to pay off your debt or who gets your very special vinyl collection after you die.”

Yes, you need one even if you do not have a lot of stuff.

“Die without a will and it makes everything a lot more complicated for everybody left behind,” said Reynolds. “It also generally takes a lot longer and is a lot more expensive.”

San Antonio attorney Trisha Morales Padia said online documents might work for some people but seeing a lawyer is better.

“One somebody is incapacitated or has passed away, that’s when you find out that it’s not done properly. If you go online and you do online forms and, for example, something is contested, and you have to go to litigation in probate court over the validity of the documents that could be, in the long run, more costly than had you just gone to an attorney,” she said. “So going to an attorney can ensure that it’s clearly done properly. For example, when I have people come in, a lot of times they say, 'well, this is what I need,' but in talking with them, bouncing ideas off them, they actually need something else.”

“There are cases where if somebody has a wealth management issue, blended families or complicated custody, really warrants making sure that you have everything considered,” said Reynolds. “Owning property in another state also makes complications.”

Next, have a power of attorney. It allows someone to speak for you when you are incapacitated.

“You might need somebody to take care of your cat or pay your bills or be able to communicate to the doctors the kind of care you want or don’t want,” Reynolds said.

Also, create a living will or advance care directive.

“Those are the wishes that you do and don’t want for your end of life,” said Reynolds.

Put those documents together and let someone know where to find them. Reynolds keeps her end of life documents in a folder labeled “All Good Things Must End.” She also said to keep copies of important paperwork in the Cloud, safe, or safety deposit box.

Morales Padia said having documents that are correctly done makes a huge difference for families.

“It makes it easier on them because you have clear documents, clear guidance and you’re ready to move forward and really kind of mourn the way that you need to mourn.”

“Those items that we had done meant so much to me because it meant I didn’t have to spend 12 more hours calling any customer service people trying to get access to any other thing,” Reynolds said. “So sometimes it was the little things that were really the big things:  Knowing the password. Well, let me rephrase that. Not knowing the password to my husband’s phone means that I have still a paperweight and I’m not able to get in and see any of the pictures. So there were a lot of things that I just had procrastinated, that we had had procrastinated or didn’t finish that would have taken five or 10 minutes. That ended up taking dozens or hundreds of hours later.”

Reynolds also said to develop an emergency plan before tragedy strikes.

“Having an emergency fund and a phone list and few things set aside, even if it’s an extra key to get into your home to feed a pet so it doesn’t rip your sofa apart, like I found out, is really important because when something so awful and emotional happens, we quickly get overwhelmed,” she said.

Reynolds developed these checklists to help others know what needs to be done before and after a death of a loved one plus wrote a book on planning for death better called "What Matters Most."

Reynolds said we cannot escape losing a loved one or the pain and suffering that comes with it.

“But my hope is that with some more planning, that it can be less of a hard fall and a little bit of a softer landing when life goes sideways,” she said.

These items will help give you and your loved ones one last gift: Peace of mind.

Do not wait to get these items together. Reynolds said anyone 18 and older should have these documents. She also recommends reviewing and updating documents whenever you have a major life change or at least every election cycle.