It’s difficult enough to sort through all of your financial, personal and legal matters while you’re still alive and healthy…and you pretty much know where to find vital information. But it can be much more difficult for the people who have to take over those matters if they have few clues on how to gather that information.
That’s why you should organize the information in a master estate document that makes life much easier for your loved ones in the event of a health crisis or your death. The information in that document should range from how to access financial and social networking accounts to where to find insurance policies…valuables such as gold or jewelry…and legal documents.
Many people do organize some of this information, especially the most obvious details, but they often leave big gaps that complicate the process of unraveling these matters. Make sure you don’t make the mistake of forgetting about any of the following elements…
“Hidden” or very old physical assets and financial documents. Many people neglect to include assets held for a long time, such as an old life insurance policy, savings bonds or a hidden stash of money, jewelry and/or other valuables, because they haven’t thought about them for many years. Be sure to consider whether you have any such assets and, if so, include them in your master document. The places that you have stored these things might range from a hidden area of your basement to a safe-deposit box, so it’s especially important to disclose the locations and, if you have a safe-deposit box, provide the key. You might even want to store your master estate document in the safe-deposit box…or you can leave it with your attorney or a friend or relative you trust.
Legal documents. An attorney might have your will, but you need to make sure to say which attorney has it and provide contact information. Also indicate where to locate the following, if you have them: Power-of-attorney…health-care proxy…living will…mortgage…deed to a house or land… marriage certificate…divorce decree…and automobile titles.
Online financial accounts. Be sure to explain how to access these digital accounts, which might range from savings accounts and certificates of deposit (CDs) to stock, fund and other investments. Also include your credit card account information. If the master estate document will be stored in a very secure place, you might include a complete list of account numbers, user names and passwords in the document, but be sure not to put it in an unsecured place on your computer, such as in a Word document, leaving you vulnerable to identity theft. Instead, consider using password manager software such as Last Pass. Such programs enable you to appoint emergency contacts and give them access to your passwords and login information to be used in the event of a health crisis or your death.
Your credit report. If you have any debt, provide the person you’ve appointed to handle your estate with a credit report. You can get a copy for free from each of the three main credit bureaus once per year through AnnualCreditReport.com.
Nonfinancial assets and documents. If Facebook plays an important role in your business or your personal life, appoint a Facebook legacy contact to memorialize or deactivate your Facebook page in the event of your death. If you store a lot of photos and/or videos on your smartphone, tablet or computer, be sure to include instructions on how to get into your device and any backup systems you might have so these photos and/or videos can be preserved and possibly distributed to family and friends.
A personal touch. One of the most loving things I’ve seen clients do is write a handwritten letter or card to the executors of their estates to thank them for taking care of their affairs. Store this with your master estate document or with your estate attorney.
The single biggest mistake you can make is not starting your master estate document at all. If you’re stuck, create a simple one-page document listing the basics: Where your accounts, health-care directives and legal documents are located…and instructions for unlocking your phone, computer and other devices. E-mail this list to your executor and/or a trusted family member or friend.
Although putting together a master estate document can be a daunting task, try to stay focused on the result: The gift you’ll leave for your loved ones by being prepared.