How to Plan for Life After a Tragedy: 7 Steps to Expecting the Unexpected

I don’t want to think about tragedies any more than anyone else does, but last Monday, as we neared our first wedding anniversary, Hamid and I did some planning.

I knew it was a good idea. What I didn’t know was how quickly I would be proven right. On Thursday, a very dear friend’s husband passed away quite suddenly when he should have had at least twenty years left with his wife.

Needless to say, I’m glad we had these conversations, so in case anything does happen to one of us, it won’t be a financial burden and we won’t have to guess what the other wanted.

Here’s what we did:

1. We each bought term life insurance.

This item was lucky number 13 on the list of 101 goals. Since we don’t own much yet (no house), we don’t need a whole lot of life insurance, which is lucky, because policies in France are relatively low-value.

I had done a simulation online, and was surprised that policies ranged from 10,000€ to a maximum of 80,000€, but for our current level of expenses, this is probably more than enough. In addition to covering funeral expenses, I had two major concerns. The first was paying the rent on our apartment for a few months, since I’m currently in the beginning stages of starting my business and don’t have a lot of income, and the rent is coming directly out of Hamid’s bank account. The second was the possibility of having to move back to the States if something should happen to him before I become a permanent resident in France. As the rules stand now, I have to renew my temporary residency permit for 4 years before I can ask for a 10-year resident card and file an application for French citizenship. I don’t know whether I’d be able to renew my residency if something were to happen to him during that interim period, but it’s possible I would only be allowed to stay through the card’s expiration date. In that case, I would need to cover moving back to Massachusetts and finding a new place to rent.

On Monday, we met with an insurance agent and each subscribed to the 80,000€ policy, which runs until age 75, provides coverage for illness and accidents alike, and pays double if it’s an accidental death. With the family discount, it runs just over 500€/year for the two of us, or about €45/month.

2. We bought a family disability insurance.

When we saw the insurance agent, we also purchased a disability policy, entitled “Warranty against Life’s Accidents” (Garantie contre les Accidents de la Vie, or GAV). This is a family policy that will also cover any children we have eventually. Basically, this policy provides up to 1€ of coverage in the event that one of us cuts off a finger while cooking dinner, or falls off a ladder, breaks a leg, and has to be in the hospital for two months.

Payouts are determined according to a grid that rates the severity of the injury. The family doctor and the insurance doctor may determine that the severed finger is worth 3% invalidity, while the broken leg may be 80% invalidity but only for six months or so until the recovery is complete. If one of us were to need a wheelchair due to an accident, for example, the insurance money would pay for us to move to an apartment with an elevator and to adapt the space, if needed.

This policy runs us about 20€/month.

3. We wrote out our first wills.

In France, there’s not a whole lot of need for a will, and most people don’t have them. French estate law strictly governs who gets what when someone dies, and only a very small percent is available for free distribution by the deceased.

For example, in a couple with one child, the child gets at least 50% of the assets and the spouse usually gets the other 50%. For assets such as the couple’s home, the surviving spouse gets what’s known as “usufruit,” which is the right to continue living in the property as if it’s his own, but the child gets the “nue-propriété,” or the actual ownership. If there are two children, they share at least two-thirds of the estate with the spouse, and three or more must share at least three-quarters of the estate. The remaining fraction can generally be willed to other people, but rarely is.

Estate planning isn’t even simpler for couples without children. In the absence of a will, the deceased’s parents and siblings can each get a portion of the estate, although, unlike children, they can be disinherited. We each wrote that the other would get 100% of our assets (sorry Mom and Dad), which have mostly been accumulated since our marriage anyway.

4. We wrote down all of our important passwords and accounts.

Number 74. Hamid wouldn’t know the first thing about my student loans or my Roth IRA if he suddenly had to claim ownership of the accounts, so I used an old notebook to write down all of the usernames, passwords, and security responses I could think of, along with detailed instructions for how to sign into online banking and how to contact customer service for the accounts if he needs to.

5. I wrote Hamid a letter to read “just in case.”

For every story I’ve heard about someone who’s died young who was vibrant, loving, and the very best person the world has ever known, I’ve heard another story from someone who wishes the last words she said to her sister hadn’t been said in anger. Now, we don’t say very many things in anger (we’re still newlyweds), but I can’t stand the thought of Hamid not knowing what he meant to me if something were to happen.

In case anything should happen to me suddenly, I want Hamid to have something from me to remind him of how important he is (was?) to me.

6. We talked about funeral plans.

In the event of my early demise, I first want to donate every body part that can possibly be given. Luckily, organ donation is the default in France, so I don’t have to do anything to sign up. The only way to opt out of organ donation here (if you’re healthy enough to be a donor) is to inform your doctor in writing and have a copy of your wishes with a family member, who gives it to the hospital. Families can’t oppose the donation of a deceased person’s organs unless they have that written proof.

After everything useful has been taken, I’d like to be cremated. I told Hamid that he could mostly do what he wanted with my ashes: keep a part if he wanted, give some to my parents if they wanted (see, I didn’t totally disinherit you, Mom and Dad!), and to please sprinkle some at Duxbury Beach, a family house where I spent most of my summers growing up.

Hamid wants to be cremated too, but he wants me to keep the ashes in a vase or something.

We don’t have any particular religious practice, so we haven’t imposed a specific type of ceremony on each other, but we will need to come up with some kind of ritual. Being so far away and not being able to support my friend properly this week has made me think about the importance of rituals. I think they’re important mostly because they help the survivors know what to do in the first days of their grief. Following the habit or the ritual requires little thinking and energy, resources in short supply after a great loss.

7. We put it all in a safe.

I quickly stored all of these documents in the safe we ordered (Number 75) and installed in a secret, hidden place somewhere in France. Fireproof safes were about 5 times as expensive as the same models in the U.S. ($125 on, 500€ on Seriously?) so I just ordered a non-fireproof one, but that’s better than nothing.

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