A client recently told us that his Will is in his safe and that his relatives don’t know the combination.  He wanted to know if there was a form that he could fill out that would give them the power to get into the safe.  He said that he also kept a computer backup in the safe, so his relatives might also need a piece of paper that tells them which files to look at. At the time we spoke, he hadn’t shared this information with anyone.

This conversation pointed out what is perhaps obvious, but often not acted upon:  it isn’t enough to execute a Will and other advance directives, such as a Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy. You also have to make your family and agents aware of these documents and leave them where they can be found. In our experience, our clients would make their passing much less stressful for their families by leaving a file or binder that includes not only their important papers, but also contains instructions for the steps they would want their family or executor to take following their death, such as the funeral home they prefer and wishes regarding burial, and even a list of local tradespeople, advisors, and friends that the family would not necessarily know.

To help you get started, we’ve compiled a list of legal documents that everyone should assemble in a file to guide their loved ones.  Many of these things will also be very helpful in the event of serious illness. And even if you are in perfect health, the sense of being organized will provide tremendous satisfaction. You can use your imagination to think of yet other instructions that will help your heirs. Our suggestions:

  • Last Will (and where original is located)
  • Power of attorney
  • Health Care Proxy
  • Living Will
  • Living Trust Agreement
  • Prepaid funeral arrangements and cemetery deeds
  • Birth certificate
  • Marriage license
  • Divorce papers
  • Passport
  • Safe deposit box information
  • Copies of deeds, title searches, and surveys of real property
  • Past tax returns
  • Loans you owe or owed to you
  • Bank names and checking, savings and other bank account information
  • Automobile or other vehicle titles and registrations
  • Stock and bond certificates, savings bonds
  • Life insurance policies and policy numbers, including who the beneficiaries are
  • Disability insurance policies and policy numbers
  • Brokerage statements
  • Retirement account information, including IRAs, pensions, 401(k)s, including who the beneficiaries are
  • Credit card numbers and credit reports, if available
  • Mortgage information
  • Passwords for computers, cell phones, email accounts and other online accounts
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If you have an elderly parent who might need to put these documents together, or you just want to find out what paperwork preparation they’ve already done, you might try to assemble the paperwork for yourself and then ask for their help. It might be easier for an elderly person if a child presents things not as a chore that he or she is being commanded to do, but as an instruction they need to give and an example they need to set.