If, like so many, you are prone to disorder in the keeping of important documents, assuming that you keep them at all, you may be well past due for a makeover of your estate plan and your end-of-life instructions. It’s not just a matter of maintaining tidiness for its own sake: a lot of money and time could be saved by making your estate plan organized and accessible and then keeping it that way.
So what are these essential documents that you should have well organized and accessible? Individual circumstances vary, but the first document for most people is an original will. Dying without a will means leaving the determination up to the state as to how your assets will be distributed, and if there is some writing, but not an original document, probate proceedings could become needlessly contentious and drawn out.
In addition to a will (and any trust documents), what follows is a nonexhaustive, but reasonably comprehensive, list of other important documents, the existence and location of which should be known to your heirs:
- Marriage license – a surviving spouse is likely to need to prove that he or she was married to the deceased before being able to claim anything based on the marriage
- Divorce papers
- Durable healthcare power of attorney (for healthcare decisions if you are incapacitated), a living will, any “do not resuscitate” order, and an authorization to release healthcare information
- Durable financial power of attorney (for financial decisions if you are incapacitated)
- Documentation of ownership of property, including housing, land, cemetery plots, vehicles, stocks, bonds, etc.
- Proof of loans made and debts owed
- List of bank and brokerage accounts, with account numbers, and any safe deposit boxes with the location of corresponding keys
- Tax returns for the most recent three years
- Life insurance policies and 401(k), pension, annuity, and IRA documents
- List of user names and passwords for internet accounts
With a little bit of foresight and planning, you can greatly reduce the administrative burden on your family and heirs after you pass.