One of the greatest gifts you can provide for your loved ones is careful planning and organization of your estate documents in preparation for your passing. During a time of grief, it can be incredibly stressful for your personal representative (also known as executor) to identify and locate all your most important paperwork and assets while making the necessary arrangements for your estate. With the proper preparation, you can ease the burden on those closest to you, ensure that your wishes are carried out, and streamline the process of executing your estate.
Here are five steps to make sure your important documents are accessible, organized, and prepared for your personal representative.
Step 1: Create a checklist of important documents (and their locations)
When it comes to organizing your estate documents, the first question most people ask is: What do I need to include? Of course, there are essential documents that everyone should include in their estate such as a will, birth certificate, and financial account information. However, the exact documents will vary from person to person. For example, if you are a business owner, a veteran, or a naturalized citizen, certain additional documents will be necessary to include in your estate paperwork. The following is a starting list of potential documents that should be copied and organized for the personal representative of your estate.
- Names and contact info of closest family and friends
- Names and contact info of all lawyers, accountants, doctors, etc
- Access instructions for in-home safe
- Legal Documents
- Will and/or trusts
- Details of specific bequests
- Deceased’s final instructions
- Funeral contract
- Copy of driver’s license
- Organ/tissue donation record
- Social security card
- Birth certificate
- Marriage certificate
- Military service papers
- Court documents for adoptions and divorce (including any property settlement agreements, name changes, prenuptial agreements, etc)
- Passport, citizenship, immigration, and/or alien registration papers
- Financial Accounts & Records
- Bank accounts – checking, savings, CDs, etc
- Investment/brokerage accounts: IRAs, 401(k), 403(b), SEP, HSA, FSA etc
- Pension or profit-sharing plans
- Stock and bonds
- Credit and debit card accounts
- Survivor annuity benefit papers
- Veteran benefit records
- Disability payment documents
- Current income statements
- Current and Previous IRS income tax returns (including gift tax returns, if applicable)
- Property tax records
- Loan Papers
- Property Records
- All real estate property deeds
- All vehicle registrations
- Mortgage documents (including promissory/loan paperwork)
- Property leases
- Documentation of storage units and key locations
- Student loans
- Documentation of valuable collections (i.e. coins, stamps, etc).
- Insurance Records
- Life insurance
- Disability insurance
- Medical and dental insurance
- Homeowner’s insurance
- Auto insurance
- Asset appraisals
- All other insurance policies (veterans, funeral, umbrella liability, long-term care, etc)
As you complete this checklist with the relevant paperwork for your estate, be sure to include copies or the location of each document for your executor.
This may seem like a long list– and it is– but it is important to provide as much information as possible about your estate and affairs. For this reason, organization is key. Imagine being tasked with executing a loved one’s estate and then being handed an old box filled with a mountain of random papers from various decades. Compare that to the experience of opening a locked file cabinet to find all the relevant estate documents in organized folders with a guiding checklist. Which experience do you want to provide for your loved ones? While this checklist may be lengthy, it will be far easier for you to arrange these documents in advance than for your personal representative to search high and low for all the necessary paperwork after you have passed away.
Step 2: List the names and contact information of key associates
While you may not be able to foresee every issue that might arise during the execution of your estate, you can make it easy to locate and communicate with all your most important professional advisors. This can also help your executor notify professional associates and key proxies of your passing in a timely manner.
This list of key contacts should include the name, phone number, address, and email of associates including:
- Personal Representative / Executor
- Financial advisor
- Health care proxy
- Durable power of attorney
- Insurance Agent
It is important to make multiple copies of this contact list, share the location and access details with loved ones. Periodically update the list for accuracy.
Step 3: Document / organize your digital (on-line) presence
In addition to physical and financial assets, many people also store valuable and personal information in various digital devices and social media accounts. Make a list of account information including usernames, passwords, and security questions for the following digital assets:
- Devices (Home and office computers, cell phones, tablets)
- Cloud Storage
- Email Accounts
- Social Media Accounts
- Digital Subscriptions
- External hard drives
Of course, it is essential to keep this summary of your digital presence in a highly secure place and accessible only to your most trusted inner circle. You should also document how you wish your online presence, photos, and files to be handled after your passing. Some people choose to have their accounts shut down, while others prefer to keep their photos and profile accessible to loved ones. Either way, it is important to make sure your loved ones can access these digital assets and carry out your wishes.
Step 4: Ensure all documents are organized and accessible
Once you have taken inventory of all the most important documents for your estate, it is important to make sure that your closest loved ones can access these documents. These documents should be sorted into the relevant sections (i.e. insurance policies, property documentation, financial accounts) and kept in a place that is secure, but available to a select few trusted people. Remember, it is important to provide more than one person with the necessary information to access your estate documents. If only one person knows how to gain access to your most important documents and something happens to this individual, your family may have tremendous difficulty managing your affairs in the wake of your passing.
Certain documents may require even more immediate access in the event of an emergency. During a medical crisis, a doctor may ask to see a copy of your health care proxy and/or personal directives before they can administer care. To ensure that your medical wishes are observed, supply copies of these documents to both your healthcare proxy and your successor proxy. Additionally, be sure that you have a Durable Power of Attorney to allow your designated representative to make legal and financial decisions should you become incapacitated.
Step 5: Regularly update your estate documents
Organizing your estate documents is only helpful as long as the paperwork is accurate. When people take a “set it and forget it” approach to estate planning, they often fail to update their estate documents with relevant changes. Big life changes such as marriage, divorce, or onset of a disability will require the addition of certain documents. Even minor changes such as switching accountants or purchasing a new vehicle will require certain updates to your records.
The more detailed and organized your estate documents are, the easier it will be to add or update information as necessary. Schedule time once or twice a year to review your estate documents for accuracy. If your affairs and assets have not changed substantially, this can be as simple as including your most current tax return. If there are major amendments to your estate planning, this process can spare your loved ones the serious headache of sifting throughout outdated or inaccurate paperwork.
Estate planning may not be a particularly pleasant process, but it is absolutely critical to ensure that your most important wishes are observed after you have passed away. Providing your personal representative with detailed, organized documentation of your affairs can eliminate stress, confusion, and delays in the administration of your estate.