My parents were divorced.

My father died during a snow storm in late February 2014 at the veteran’s hospital in Milwaukee. He died without a will or any sort of after death directive making a painful time even more painful. As his only child living in the Milwaukee area I became the administrator of his estate by default. Thus began a two-year long legally problematic, time consuming and emotionally draining odyssey - one I wouldn’t wish upon anyone.

What a mess.

The many complications of the situation became apparent immediately: although my father had arranged to be cremated and buried at a nearby veteran’s cemetery, without a will or some other form of written directive the hospital’s administrator would not allow my father’s body to be released or transferred either to the Milwaukee morgue or a funeral home without written consent from not only me but my three siblings, two of whom lived in California and one who lived overseas. Because of time zone differences and work schedules, it took six hours to notify each sibling that our father had died and receive their email scanned signatures approving the transfer of my father’s body, as well as written consent making me estate administrator.

The next official step required that I go to the Milwaukee County Courthouse to be legally declared the administrator of my father’s estate. Having seen my father in the hospital the night before and told by his doctor that he was “on-the-upswing” I was still in shock and trying to emotionally and mentally process his “sudden-turn-for-the-worse” and death when I found myself walking through the halls of the courthouse past handcuffed and foot-chained prisoners from the jail next door. How could this be? How did this happen? How did I end up here? The seemingly endless day had a sense of unreality that left me feeling untethered from the earth and in a mental fog.

Although I spent over 1200 hours over the next two years (I counted!) putting to rest my father’s estate, I still ended up hiring a lawyer to help navigate some of the more complex and incomprehensible aspects of my father’s life and death.

What a frustrating and time-consuming mess.

When my mother died in Medford, Oregon in 2019 she left behind an easily accessible banker’s box full of documented last wishes, burial arrangement information, tax statements, financial records, and more – in short anything and everything my sister who resided nearby needed to easily and efficiently process my mother’s estate. My sister was able to close my mother’s estate in a little less than a year and by her own estimation spent an average of two hours a week on estate affairs during that time.

Although my always-organized mother might not have called her banker’s box a Next of Kin Box, that’s exactly what it was. Thanks Mom for the gift of greater ease following your death that allowed us to mourn and fondly remember without the stress of having to untangle a messy estate.

What Is a Next of Kin Box?

As I discovered when my father died, dealing with the death of a loved one is made much more more difficult when no intentions are stated or directives in place to guide you through what I have come to call “the paperwork of death” – the legal and family paperwork required by law and filial obligation that must be completed after a loved one dies.

A next of kin box is a gift of kindness for your loved ones; a place for gathering and storing documents for easy accessibility detailing how you want your wishes carried out regarding all aspects of your life at end-of-life and after death.
After my mother died, my sister who had managed my mother’s estate gave each of her siblings an official Next of Kin Box* (NOKbox) found on-line so that none of our loved ones would ever have to go through what I – and we – went through after my father died.

The official NOKbox is a sort of estate planning kit containing:

1. A plastic, zip top protected documents bag. The bag is for housing documents such as birth and marriage certificates, divorce papers, social security cards, a list of usernames and passwords, and other information difficult to find, replace or access online. The bag can also be used to store contact and other information on key people to be notified upon your death. I’ve added a personalized sort of love letter to loved ones to this bag as it will most likely be the first part of the kit opened upon my death.

Documents bags should be stored in a fire proof safe or other secure place that someone you trust can easily access when necessary. I keep my protected documents bag in a fireproof file cabinet in the basement.

2. A plastic zip top key bag to collect, label and organize household-related keys.

What Else Is Inside the NOKbox Kit?

Inside each NOK kit are labels to attach to 15 individual hanging or manila file folders covering 15 categories – any and everything my next of kin will need to find, manage and process the paperwork of death. The 15 categories are:

  • Directions on how to use your NOKbox
  • Primary residence (information on your mortgage or lease)
  • Vehicles (car or boat titles, maintenance records etc.)
  • Bank accounts (including money-moving apps)
  • Insurance/ insurances
  • Investments
  • Debt (major credit and retail cards; student, medical and personal debt)
  • Income (from current employment, social security, retirement income, side income and any other income)
  • Assets
  • Family and friends, including pets (in this file I have even indicated how I would like to disperse my sewing machine, books and art work I have made)
  • Education and career (sentimental related keepsakes, transcripts and diplomas, past employment, military)
  • Health (current and past medical records, Medicare and medical directives;
  • Communities and online accounts (including subscriptions and memberships, social media and other online accounts)
  • Legal and taxes (financial power of attorney, guardianship)
  • Estate documents (will/trust and end of life ceremony directives, funeral arrangements)

Inside each folder is a checklist; on one side is information on what to add to each individual folder, and on the other side is information telling your next of kin what to do with that information.

I found that gathering and putting together information for your NOKbox is best done over a several month period of time in order to avoid being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information needed to complete the box. I methodically completed my box over a six month time period and continue to add and subtract items as needed. Although a NOKbox is a gift to your loved ones, it is also a gift you can give yourself to relieve yourself of living – and dying – with the stress of unfinished business.


*See NOKBox organization for your Next of Kin at