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The Single Life: In Case of Emergency

  • Susan Ellingburg Contributing Writer
  • 2011 13 Jan
The Single Life:  In Case of Emergency

It was my first visit to a new doctor so I had to fill out a mountain of forms. I was plowing through the pile of paper when one question stopped me in my tracks. "Who should we contact in case of an emergency?"

I stared at that question for several minutes, thinking, I don't know. I don't belong to anybody. In case of emergency, who would be responsible for me?

I left it blank.

In the days, weeks, and months following that office visit, I kept coming back to that question. My parents are both deceased, as is my only sibling. Sure, I have friends, but it seemed like an imposition to saddle them with that responsibility without at least discussing it first. What's a single girl to do?

As it turns out, plenty.


I celebrated Christmas with a dozen singles ranging from mid-twenties to mid-sixties, so it was a perfect opportunity to get a cross-generational conversation going. Several shared this handy trick: enter the word "ICE" in all caps before the names of important contacts in your cell phone. "ICE" stands for "In Case of Emergency" so if you are found unconscious, the paramedics, police, etc., know those are the numbers of the people you want notified. Isn't that genius? If you haven't already, go add ICE to at least one number in your phone. Do it now. I'll wait.

If I Should Die Before I Wake

Some people become very nervous when this topic comes up—as if the very mention of their earthly demise will cause it to come about sooner. But God is very clear that "all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be." (Psalms 139:16) So what's to be concerned about?

How about those you leave behind?

Make it easy on them: leave instructions. If nothing else, hang a file in your desk drawer, stick your important documents in it, and tell a trusted friend where it is. Which documents are "important"? There's a starter list from the U.S. Institutes of Health National Institute on Aging ( at the end of this article.

What to Do with What's Left of You

I speak from personal experience when I tell you it is infinitely easier on the survivors when things are settled in advance. My father died suddenly, but he had a pre-paid funeral plan and a plot, so we didn't have to make those decisions while still reeling in shock. My brother died unexpectedly with no plans in place; that was a much different story.

I know: it's a grim subject. Put on your grown-up undies and deal with it. If you don't, someone else will have to. That's a heavy burden to leave someone.

Even before "the days ordained for you" are over, you may find yourself unable to make your own medical decisions. Then what? Having a living will in place allows you to state what kind of care you do or don't want. A durable power of attorney for health care lets you name a person to make medical decisions if you can't make them yourself. (Be sure to ask permission before naming someone.)

Suppose you don't make it. That brings up another set of questions. Burial or cremation? Do you have a preference as to where your remains end up? This is the time to tell someone. (You can hardly do it after you're gone.) Any thoughts on your memorial service? Share them with someone. How else are they going to know?

What To Do with Those Who Depend on You

If you're a parent of an under-age child, have you appointed a person to take care of them if something happens to you? Legally appointed, that is, not just thought about it or mentioned it in casual conversation. If you don't decide, the state will . . . and you might not like their choice. What about your aging parents? Your pets? Do you know who would take care of them?

What to Do with Your Stuff

During that Christmas conversation, one man mused, "My sister would get my things but she lives across the country. She wouldn't know which of my friends I'd like to leave something to. I should write that down." Indeed he should. So should we all.

While working on this article I decided to take my own advice and make a will. It was both easier and more difficult than I expected. State-specific forms can be ordered online for a nominal fee and they're pretty much the fill-in-the-blank variety. One's choice of funeral home and final resting place are covered in the questions. The tricky part was deciding who got what. In the current housing crisis is leaving someone my home a gift or a curse? (Not that I expect them to move in anytime soon, but still.) Who would want my car? My scrapbooks? My collection of Sherlockiana?

So I asked. Now I know and requests have been noted. They may well change, but at least I've made a start. It feels good to know my affairs are in order. I like to think of it as a gift I'm giving to those I leave behind. A gift I hope they don't open for a long, long time.

What Exactly Is an "Important Paper"?

Excerpted from "AgePage: Getting Your Affairs in Order" U.S. Institutes of Health National Institute on Aging.

Personal Records


  • Full legal name
  • Social Security number
  • Legal residence
  • Date and place of birth
  • Names and addresses of spouse and children
  • Location of birth and death certificates and certificates of marriage, divorce, citizenship, and adoption
  • Employers and dates of employment
  • Education and military records
  • Names and phone numbers of religious contacts
  • Memberships in groups and awards received
  • Names and phone numbers of close friends, relatives, and lawyer or financial advisor
  • Names and phone numbers of doctors
  • Medications taken regularly
  • Location of living will

 Financial Records


  • Sources of income and assets (retirement funds, IRAs, 401(k)s, interest, etc.)
  • Social Security and Medicare information
  • Insurance information (life, health, long-term care, home, car) with policy numbers and agents' names and phone numbers
  • Names of your banks and account numbers (checking, savings, credit union)
  • Investment income (stocks, bonds, property) and stockbrokers' names and phone numbers
  • Copy of most recent income tax return
  • Location of most up-to-date will with an original signature
  • Liabilities, including property tax—what is owed, to whom, when payments are due
  • Mortgages and debts—how and when paid
  • Location of original deed of trust for home and car title and registration
  • Credit and debit card names and numbers
  • Location of safe deposit box and key

Susan Ellingburg is a natural-born Texan who sings at every opportunity, reads as much as possible, and cherishes every day she gets to spend with friends.  She's a serious foodie and not-so-serious gardener who is determined not to let being single stand in the way of living an amazing life.  Read Susan's blog at

**This column first published on January 13, 2011.