14 January 2012

END OF LIFE DOCUMENTS

     I've had a long list of rather fun topics to post the past few weeks, but life has a funny way of diverting my best intentions. So it is this week, as I muse about family records while helping relatives with some pressing legal issues.
     As an attorney, I have prepared many end of life documents over the years--health care directives and proxies, power of attorney forms, wills, and codicils. I realized today that I have neglected in the past to record, in my genealogy files, information from those documents for many of my own family members. At the time of a loved one's death, most of us are thinking as mourners, and we are not thinking of our genealogy files. Many people (myself included) destroy or discard documents such as powers of attorney and living wills once the maker is deceased. These documents, when no longer of legal force and no longer confidential, could contain valuable genealogical information.
     For instance, many of the witnesses on these records could be relatives. A brief note to the effect that Grandpa had a will or a codicil witnessed by Jane and John Kelly, and that Jane and John were his cousins (or next door neighbors), would preserve this information for future generations in your family.
     With the person's permission, you might even enter this information while the principal of the document is alive (or if you are the principal). I have had two cases in which wills were written long, long ago, and were not what lawyers call "self-proving." That is, the witnesses needed to be found and brought into court to attest that the signature was that of the decedent. The matter would have been solved more efficiently had someone in the family kept note of the identity, and other particulars, of the witnesses.
     Don't forget to save other documents such as social security and identification cards, death certificates, funeral receipts, and Mass cards.
     Isn't it true that both happy and sad life events overshadow our thoughts about the place these events have in our family history? I don't mean to sound callous, as if we should allow our family history pursuits to invade the solemn time of mourning, or the spontaneous celebrations of birth, or the joy of a wedding. But, if we think about these issues beforehand, we will automatically save and record our family's historical moments near to the time of their happening. Plus, we might take better care when "cleaning out" after a wedding or a loved one's funeral.