By Luke Finley and Laura Ripper
This is a fully collaborative effort, but Laura did more of the research and organisation and Luke more of the writing up, so when ‘I’ is used it refers to Luke. Anything in quotes was contributed by others in one of the many discussions we started on this subject.
That may not come as a surprise to many of us, but it’s not something we like to dwell on. That’s probably why the topic jumped off the page when I read the workshop handouts from the 2015 SfEP/Society of Indexers joint conference.1 I’m usually fairly organised, but here was a major piece of advance preparation that I’d never even considered.
Discussions online (including on the member forums: https://forums.sfep.org.uk/read.php?2,81561) led to an ever-growing list of considerations that many of us had avoided facing up to, but among the slightly sheepish admissions were a few impressive people with clear and practical plans in place.
Further research revealed a wide range of advice and online resources for putting together what one contributor dubbed DEATHnotes. We can’t hope to cover every aspect of this can of worms here, so we’ve gone for DEATHnotes for Dummies: a summary of the most pertinent questions and practical steps, with some pointers to further information and advice.
If you haven’t made these kinds of plans yet, you might wonder how necessary it is. For most of us, our priority is how we want our grieving loved ones to deal with our mortal remains and share out our stuff. But if we don’t leave instructions about business matters, it’ll probably be the same grieving loved ones who have to deal with the fallout. Major tasks like informing a bank or mortgage provider may be on their radar already. But would they know, or think to ask about, who provides your web hosting or exactly which company you were actually working for when you said ‘I’m doing a copy-edit for Taylor & Francis’?
Then there’s the question of professionalism. Most of us work alone; there’s no colleague, line manager or admin support to pick up our unfinished tasks. Even if you’re so pragmatic and unsentimental that you’re not concerned about your own reputation after your demise, you could argue that the reputation of the wider profession (and the CIEP) is well served if it’s the norm to have contingency plans in place.
Nominating a responsible person
Even if you’ve made plans, is a family member the best option? Leaving them with this task at a difficult time ‘might not be the kindest thing to do’. And ‘what happens if you’re in an accident together?’ Is your next of kin IT-literate? Do they understand your business processes in detail? As one person pointed out, ‘a fellow editor would be in a better position to help [my clients] by recommending someone to finish the work or pointing them towards the SfEP Directory’.
A trusted friend or colleague may be a fairer, more practical option. Many of us have working relationships with other editors, often working on similar types of material, who may be ideally placed to take over work or find someone else who can. If you don’t have a trusted friend or colleague, or don’t want to burden them, the site MyLawyer (https://www.mylawyer.co.uk/) suggests using an accountant. If you use one already, they’re likely to be familiar with your business.
The key thing is to identify someone. If you don’t, it may be left to the legal folk to figure out. They’ll do it slowly (no help to your current clients) and expensively.
Plan what information you need to pass on
As a minimum, this is likely to include:
- Client contact details. Is it clear who your contact is within a firm?
- Current and forthcoming projects. Is your record of these linked to contact details? Are regular clients included?
- Passwords. It doesn’t matter how organised your records are if no one can get at them. Do you have a separate record of passwords and usernames for your PC, website, cloud storage, directories, email accounts, social media accounts and password-protected documents?
- Advertising. Your SfEP Directory entry, entries in other directories, business Facebook page and other social media profiles could continue to bring new work in if they’re not taken down. Some sites have processes you can set up in advance: for example, see Facebook’s Legacy Contact options (under Security Settings) and Gmail’s Inactive Account Manager.
- Detailed preferences. For example, what do you want to happen to your online presence? For many of us these days a large part of our lives is lived online. Simply having it all deleted might suit some people, but most people will have slightly more complex wishes than this.
- Financial information. This includes outstanding invoices, payments received for work not yet done, and possibly money owed. A comprehensive spreadsheet storing this information alongside contact details and current projects is worth the effort. (There are some good templates online which you could adapt, such as Louise Harnby’s: http://www.louiseharnbyproofreader.com/blog-the-proofreaders-parlour/editorial-annual-accounts-template-excel.)
- In what order? For example, you may not want clients to find out by reading a message on your website before they’ve been told personally.
Keeping it up to date
MyLawyer suggests reviewing the information you’ve prepared regularly, but this sounds like one of those chores that always gets pushed to the bottom of the list. The more you can tie things in with the job-monitoring or invoicing systems you use already, the better.
Storing and retrieving the information
Store your DEATHnotes separately from any instructions for retrieving them, and keep both somewhere secure. You don’t want a notice pinned to your office door with ‘Burglars – start here!’ splashed across it. But someone needs to know where it is, otherwise it could be months before they crack your filing system or locate the papers you carefully hid behind a disused filing cabinet in a room marked ‘Beware of the Leopard’ (to misquote Douglas Adams).
Suggestions for storing retrieval instructions included:
- regularly reprinting or emailing them to someone else
- keeping them on a non-networked, non-password-protected computer that others can access
- using an old-fashioned notebook
- simply telling the responsible person where to look.
Approaches to storing the detailed information ranged from comprehensive spreadsheets or mind maps, to a few key pieces of information on a whiteboard or stuck to the fridge. One thoroughly prepared contributor has ‘a fire safe with all my important documents in it’, along with ICE [in case of emergency] documents containing instructions covering personal and business matters.
MyLawyer recommends writing a ‘letter of wishes’ with detailed requests about winding up your affairs. You can update this easily and cheaply, without needing to involve a solicitor – but make sure your will mentions the letter so people know about it.
There are two levels to this. First, you need to make sure the information survives after you’ve gone. The fire safe suggestion is helpful if it’s a house fire rather than a collision with public transport that carries you off. If your information is stored electronically, ‘making use of the cloud’ will get round the risk of your laptop going under the wheels with you.
Second, you need to think about the risk of information falling into the wrong hands, even while you’re still alive. One contributor suggested using ‘an encrypted storage facility’. Password-management programs (see http://lifehacker.com/5529133/five-best-password-managers for some suggestions) automatically generate passwords more secure than anything you can come up with, and you only need to keep track of one master password. The security implications of writing this one password down anywhere that’s accessible to others are worth bearing in mind, though.
There’s always a balance to be struck between ease of access and security of information. Only you can decide what you’re comfortable with here, but some of the links below may help.
Testing it out
A trial run of procedures with your responsible person, making sure they understand and can navigate your filing systems, is worthwhile. (For added realism, you could put ‘Police line – do not cross’ tape across your office doorway while you carry it out.)
- Keep clear records. They have to work for you in the present, but if they’re too idiosyncratic they won’t help others in the future.
- Choose the right person for the job. Make sure they know what they’ve agreed to.
- Write a letter of wishes setting out how your instructions should be acted on. Refer to it in your will.
- Review the detailed information and the letter of wishes periodically or whenever your circumstances change.
- Put the time in now. We all hope our disaster plans will never be needed, and many won’t, but if you can tie in this advance planning with effective business systems, you might save yourself time and effort in this life, too.
There were many aspects of this topic on which people wanted more information or support. Some of these point to a possible future role for SfEP (and comparable professional organisations). Any of these might make a good subject for future blogs, for starters:
- a template document or process for members to use
- a sample letter of wishes
- a way of storing ICE contacts for member
- a toolkit or practical guide
- more advice on emergency planning for a variety of worst-case scenarios, for sole traders and for limited companies
- more advice on managing your ‘digital footprint’
- what’s the client’s perspective on all this?
- what happens if it’s the client who dies?
It’s clear that there is no one best way to approach this. We hope this overview acts as a catalyst and starting point, and that the links below help you get stuck into the detail. Ultimately, it’s a matter of deciding what fits best with your way of working, the nature of your business and clients, and whoever will be dealing with them after you’ve had your date with the double-decker.
Useful links on succession planning
- Gov.uk − ‘Making a will’ – a brief overview of what to think about and what it involves.
- The Guardian – ‘How to have a tidy death’ – tips on writing a will and creating a master document.
- Lifehacker – some useful (US-based) pointers on writing a will, managing your online presence and setting up a ‘master file’.
- Lifehacker – how to organise an ICE list and what to include.
- Unlock the Law – ‘Digital legacy – UK legal guide’ – a more detailed article on planning what will happen to your digital assets after you die.
1 The question was posed by SI member Jane Read during her session on ‘Having a good relationship with your clients’.
Laura Ripper (www.lauraripperproofreading.com) began working as an editor in 2004, and has been freelance since 2012. She specialises in plain English and is a Professional Member of the CIEP.
Luke Finley (www.lukefinley-editorial.co.uk) set up Luke Finley Editorial in 2013. He works for a wide range of clients but specialises in social policy. He is a Professional Member of the CIEP.
Proofread by CIEP Entry-Level Member Susan Walton.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.
Originally published October 2015; updated January 2022.