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Practical Estate Planning: Organize Your Documents

Help your family -- and make your executor's job easier -- by getting your paperwork in order.

Estate planning isn't just about legal issues—there are practical ones as well. After you die, many of the tasks and decisions your loved ones will have to handle aren't covered by basic estate planning documents. You can save your family much headache by making your wishes known on such issues as:

  • Who should be notified of your death?
  • Do you want a funeral or a memorial ceremony? If so, what type? Who should attend? Do you want people to send flowers, or would you prefer donations to charity?

In addition, your loved ones may not know:

  • whether you have a will, trust, or other estate planning documents
  • what you own, or
  • how to access your money or your property.

Most of us carry this information around in our heads and never discuss it with our family members in a comprehensive way. Our loved ones must do their best to sort it all out later. The good news is, you can make their jobs easier with a little advance planning.

Organize Your Estate Planning Documents

Making things easier for your family is not difficult, but it may be time-consuming. It's best to break the task into manageable sections and take it one step at a time.

Where Your Estate Planning Documents Are Located

To avoid confusion and delays, it's important to let your executor or successor trustee know where your estate planning documents are. There isn't one universal answer to the question of how to organize your estate planning documents, but in general, keep wills, trust documents, powers of attorney, and other estate planning documents in the same place.

You might consider keeping everything in a fireproof metal box, file cabinet, or home safe, or you might keep them with your lawyer. Learn the pros and cons of these locations. Then be sure to tell those closest to you where your estate planning documents are. Your careful work won't help them unless they know where to find important papers when the time comes.

If you don't yet have a will or trust, see Nolo's Wills,Trusts & Probate Center to learn more. You can also use a reputable service like Nolo's Quicken WillMaker & Trust to make your own will or trust.

Your Assets and Their Location

Costly or painful losses can result from a failure to organize your affairs. Stocks, bonds, bank accounts, real estate, and insurance policy benefits may go unclaimed and be turned over to the state government. This happens surprisingly often. Each year, millions of dollars go into state treasuries because the rightful property owners couldn't be found. So be sure to leave behind not only a list of your assets and property, but also explanations of where the assets, money, or items are, and how to access them.

Fortunately, losses like these can be avoided with a little bit of planning, sorting, and organizing. First, ask yourself what assets you own. For example:

  • Do you own a life insurance policy, pension, annuity, or retirement account? (See Help Your Family Claim Retirement Benefits.)
  • Do you have bank accounts?
  • Do you own stocks, bonds, mutual funds, or other securities?
  • Do you have a safe deposit box, or other items in locked or hidden places?
  • Do you own real estate?
  • Do you own any other irreplaceable items, such as photographs, heirlooms, or items important to your family history?

Next, ask yourself what your loved ones need to know or have. Do they know the specific banks where you have accounts? If you own real estate, a copy of the deed might be useful. Do they know where the safe deposit box is and how to access it?

For online accounts, having a way to communicate your passwords can be important. (For more guidance, see Help Your Executor: Secured Places and Passwords.)

Funeral Plans

Does your family know your preferences for your funeral arrangements? You can help your loved ones by making a funeral plan, which can include what kind of memorial service you want, your wishes for final arrangements, and more. See Planning Your Funeral or Memorial Service for more details.

Get Practical Help Organizing Your Documents

There's no set way to organize all of this information. You can compile it in any way way that you think will help your family handle your affairs after your death. Even some scribbled notes left in an accessible location are better than nothing. However, if you have the time and energy for it, consider a more thorough approach.

To organize your wishes, plans, and important personal information, you can turn to self-help products, available from Nolo or other publishers. One book, Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won't Have To, by Melanie Cullen (Nolo), offers a comprehensive planner that prompts you to describe the types of information listed above, and more. However you choose to organize your affairs, what's most important is that you create a clear, easily accessible system that will light the way for your family and friends.

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