Updated: Apr 26, 2022
Clients ask me all the time what to do with their estate planning documents and their other important papers. These are your most important records. When there is an emergency, a death, or a natural disaster, you need these documents.
The first group of documents is the estate planning documents. If you have not prepared your estate plan yet, make an appointment with an estate planning attorney today. Use an attorney who specializes in estate planning to help you complete all the needed documents for your unique situation.
Worse than not having an estate plan is drafting one that is not valid because someone made errors when creating the plan. If you move to a new state, have your documents reviewed in your new location, to be sure they meet the requirements of your new location.
Important Estate Planning Documents
Estate planning documents include some or all of the following, depending on your personal situation:
2. Trust Documents
3. Advanced Directives
a. Living will
b. Financial Power of Attorney
c. Health Care Proxy | Medical Power of Attorney | Health Care Power of Attorney
d. Medical Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment | Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment | Do Not Resuscitate Orders
e. Organ Donation Directives
Types of Vital Records
Besides your estate documents, there are some vital records about you and your family members. These documents are difficult to replace. These are paper documents and are, mostly, required in paper form.
Bar /Bhat Mitzvah records
Death Certificates for deceased family members or someone for whom you are the executor or personal representatives
Deeds to property owned by you
Military discharge records
Stock / Bond Certificates / Financial Records
Titles to your vehicles
Proof of ownership for autos, RVs, timeshares
Appraisals for high-value jewelry, art, and antiques
Once you gathered all these documents, store them together so they are ready in case of an emergency evacuation in time of a natural disaster. These documents will also prove invaluable to your executor or, in some areas, referred to as a personal representative, after your death.
Make things as seamless as possible for your heirs. I do not want my heirs to go through every box, bag, file drawer, closet, and other storage spaces to seek these essential documents. It could take days, months, or years. Our families, and especially the personal representatives, executors, and those we selected to handle our advance directives are busy with their own affairs. Do not leave this burden on them. Prepare these files today and lighten the load for yourself and your family.
You have choices for where to store your documents, but I recommend that it be somewhere secure, and you tell a trusted advisor or family member where you stored the documents.
Some of you have a home safe. Just be sure that the safe you select protects your documents against humidity. If you have a home safe, remember to secure it to the structure of the home.
Others will have your vital records in a safe deposit box, at your bank. Keep in mind that if your vital documents are in a bank safe deposit box, they are only available to you during the office hours of that branch. Illness, natural disaster, and death can occur on weekends and holidays too, so be sure that if this is your choice, you could wait hours or days to gain access to your safe deposit box.
When you die, depending on how you set up your account, your heirs may need a court order to grant them permission to open the box. Having your will in the safe deposit box will be problematic. Getting court permission to get access to the box takes time. I recently read about a case where the deceased wanted her ring to go to a family member, by the time the executor got the order to access the box containing her will, the burial had already occurred, and the ring was buried with the deceased.
Think about the documents you or your family might need at a moment’s notice. Your will, trust documents, your passport, your advance directives all come to mind. Could you wait days to gain access to them? What happens if you can't get to the bank? If you choose to have a safe deposit box, keep an inventory of all the items you have in it. This list prevents needless trips to the bank to look for items actually stored elsewhere.
My advice here is simple: start today, one file, one pile, one box, one account at a time. Every step you take brings you closer to your goal. Having all your files in order is a wonderful gift to give yourself and your family!
Judith Guertin is an Entrepreneur, Professional Organizer, Master Level Certified Productivity Specialist, and a distinguished writer. In 2021, she authored: Taming the Digital Tiger Gmail Edition with her mentor Barbara Hemphill. The book received acclaim by BookAuthority.org as the number one Gmail book for beginners. In 2022, she released her second book Beyond the Estate Plan – a resource guide inspired by her family's loss and her mother's wisdom to have her vital information well-prepared and easily accessible to her loved ones in the event of a dreadful situation. Judith is on a mission to give others the tools that make it possible to navigate the unexpected in an increasingly digital world. She is a former Registered Occupational Therapist and a self-proclaimed life learner. People who know her call her many things: a trainer, mentor, coach, and friend. Her greatest joy is helping others to live with peace of mind and a sense of control.
Judith currently resides in Massachusetts. She's celebrating 20 plus years as the owner of All Ways Organized. When she's not running her business, she spends her time providing productive environment training seminars, guest speaking, and serving as an active member of the New England Chapter of the National Association of Professional Organizers.
Beyond the Estate Plan is a comprehensive guidebook that helps individuals organize their estate planning documents, ensuring their loved ones have easy access to their vital information in the aftermath of an emergency, sudden illness, or death. People who purchase the book receive free entrance to an exclusive member community where important updates and expert advice are plentiful. The Beyond the Estate Plan Course affordably jumpstarts the planning process, while the learning center on the website is helpful to keeping current with the latest tips and trends.