Thinking Inside the Box



 Curtis Seltzer

CERTAIN OBLIGATIONS HAVE BEEN REARING THEIR UGLY HEADS as I get closer to completing my passage, instead of simply moving from one year to the next in a gerontological form of social promotion.

During the last few weeks, my wife, Melissa, and I have been edging toward what I’ve come to call our “estate box.” Melissa seems to have secured approval from her inner and outer lawyers to cooperate, although she has not said what she may suspect: If we build it, it will come.

Accordingly, I’ve enthroned a new cardboard container on the dining-room table where I can’t ignore it. I’ve started a list of what we should stick in there. I’ve gathered a few documents so far, along with several dozen, legal-size folders. But mainly I’ve stalled, which I will blame on my outer slug and inner chicken.

Maybe I share Melissa’s reluctance to anticipate fate. It’s far easier to leave your mess to whoever is next in line. Clean-up is not a widely sought-after part of inheritance, but it’s often a value-adding task.

An estate box is a gift to the person who is responsible for tying up your loose ends. Our box starts with a will and a living will. The question of what to do with our assets if we and our beneficiary die simultaneously needs to be resolved. Despite efforts to keep life simple, it’s obvious that I have ensnared my existence with dozens of institutions, government agencies, corporations, arrangements and individuals. Disengaging me from both hardpan and quicksand will take time and effort, though it’s not me who will break a sweat.

For starters, the estate box will eventually contain the dozens of account numbers that have attached to me like a colony of breeding barnacles—checking, savings, credit cards, retirement funds, investments, financed debt, phones, television and utilities. I may need to set up a separate folder for all the usernames and passwords that now lock me up like a Houdini who has forgotten the key to his chains.

I will make a log of regular cash in and cash out. Income flow will list paychecks, monthly payments from the government and private sources, dividends, rent and the like. The next folder will spell out routine monthly outlays for fixed- and variable payments, such as credit cards.

We’ll do the same in-out portrait for Melissa’s law office.

I’ll need a folder for “official info.” This will include the location of an original copy of my birth certificate, passport, safety-deposit-box, driver’s license, account books and Social Security card. The estate administrator will need multiple official copies of my birth certificate and death certificate to make claims.

I’ll group the oddly named “death benefits” in another folder. We have term life-insurance policies, which will turn out to be a good deal if one or both of us dies pretty soon. Smaller life policies may be floating around with employers, credit cards, lenders and memberships. And if I die accidentally, survivors should check out benefits on credit cards. (I discovered a $5 monthly deduction to Exxon’s Travel Club on my deceased father’s credit card, which turned into a $50,000 check to his estate as an accidental-death benefit.)

Inevitably, we will have a big, fat odds-and-ends folder—what to do with pets; jewelry; musical instruments; tools; art; antiques; computers; phones; photos; collections; guns, saddles, briefcases, purses and clothes. I’d like my red-leather couch to go to a good home. I’ll try to remember stuff I borrowed that should be returned and stuff I’ve lent that belongs in my estate. I’ll make notes about what to do with things of meaning.

At the price of redundancy, I’ll make a “contacts” folder with the names of our tax preparer, lawyer, website manager, bankers, agents and advisers of one sort and another, as well as local helpers—plumber, electrician, appraiser—and auctioneer.

The folder labeled, “Obituary” will probably be empty. But I will say how I want to be disposed of. I think I’m now at two boxes and heading full steam for three.

What’s not in an estate box is probably more important than what is. The folders are mostly about just stuff. Intangibles. If you did something nice, unbidden. If you got something right. If you helped someone at personal risk. If you stuck with something hard. If you apologized when one was due. If you regretted mistakes of character. If you paid a price for a principle. If you tried hard with your family. If you improved over time.

Those items, if they exist, are stashed outside the estate box on the dining-room table.

Curtis Seltzer is a writer and land consultant who lives on a cattle-and-timber farm in Blue Grass, Va. He is the author of How To Be A Dirt-Smart Buyer of Country Property and four collections of his columns at He can be reached at

For more information on this and related topics, visit the link on our Resources page.

Forty Forward!

Your comments on this article?