Organizing Your Estate-Planning Documents

Posted April 9, 2012 in Estate Planning by

Congratulations! You’ve just created your estate-planning documents. That alone sets you apart from the majority of American adults, who haven’t done any estate planning. But your last will and testament, living will and power of attorney documents are of little help if your loved ones can’t locate them in an emergency.

Today, let’s talk organization.


Location, Location, Location

Your first instinct may be to store your last will and testament in a safety deposit box. After all, banks have trained us to think that there’s no safer, more secure place than a safety deposit box. But did you know that, by law, banks are often required to seal a safety deposit box after the owner’s death? Your family might even have to go to court to gain access to the box. It’s a headache that can be avoided: Don’t store estate planning documents in your safety deposit box.

So where should you store these items? At home, in a secure but accessible location. Do you have a fireproof safe or lockbox? That’s a great spot—provided someone else knows the documents are there and also has the key or combination. If that seems like an extreme solution, simply keep them in a clearly marked file with other important papers. For many, the ideal spot is a filing cabinet or desk drawer.

Once you’ve found a safe spot for them, tell someone else where your last will and testament, power of attorney and living will can be found. Often this will be a spouse or other family member. If you live alone, you might want to tell your parent or adult child. Or the person you’ve named as the executor to your estate, healthcare surrogate or attorney in fact.


Collecting Valuable Documents

After you’ve found a secure location for your estate planning documents, there are a few other items you should store in the same place. These include:

  • A list of your checking, savings and investment accounts, including the name of the financial institution and the number for each account
  • Copies of life insurance policies and other annuities
  • The titles to any property you own, such as a home or a car, or the relevant loan documents if you don’t yet have possession of the title
  • Documents detailing any pre-planned and pre-paid funeral arrangements you’ve made
  • A draft of your obituary, if you have written one
  • Log-in information for your computer, cell phone, online accounts, including email addresses, Facebook and financial accounts
  • Contact information for the people you’ve selected as your executor, attorney-in-fact and healthcare surrogate, as well as the contact information for people you’d like to be notified of your death
  • The key to your safety deposit box and address of the bank (because even though you shouldn’t store your estate planning documents there, eventually your executor will need to empty it of other valuables)

Many people also find that it’s helpful to keep their estate-planning documents in the same spot where they keep tax records. Your executor may have to file income tax returns on your behalf and on behalf of the estate. If you keep all past, present and future tax-related paperwork in a single location, it will make things less confusing for your executor.


Don’t Forget

A few final tips for organizing your estate-planning documents:

  • Once you’ve signed your new will, shred or otherwise destroy any wills you previously created. Earlier versions of a last will and testament may only serve to confuse your relatives when they sort through your paperwork.
  • If you’ve created a new power of attorney that names a new attorney-in-fact, notify banks and anyone else who may have dealt with your prior attorney-in-fact. If necessary, provide them with a copy of the latest power of attorney document. Also, write a letter to your prior attorney-in-fact notifying him or her of the change.
  • Let your doctor, hospital, healthcare insurance company and other medical providers know that you’ve created a new healthcare power of attorney and ask if they’d like to have a copy on file. You’ll also want to share your living will with the appropriate healthcare professionals.

Learn more about estate planning or find an attorney who can help you put a plan in place,

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