A guide to organizing your estate records

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Elliot Raphaelson

As I’ve emphasized before, one of the best legacies you can leave to your loved ones is a well-planned estate. Part of that is making sure your important estate documents are organized for easy access.

This is the topic of a useful book, Get it Together by Melanie Cullen and Shae Irving (published by Nolo), which advises on creating a comprehensive plan with your attorney and organizing all your important estate documents.

The number and variety of necessary documents can be daunting, as the following list suggests.

• Employment. For each job you currently hold, have a file that includes the employer’s name, address, phone number, human resources contact and website. List all benefits you or your beneficiaries are entitled to, from current and former employers, and identify the location of all documents related to these benefits.

• Healthcare directives. These are legal documents indicating your wishes for medical care in case you are unable to speak for yourself. There are two relevant documents. One is a living will — a written statement that indicates to medical personnel the type of care you want if you should become incapacitated. The second is a durable power of attorney for healthcare, which allows you to appoint someone you trust to be your healthcare agent. Their job will be to ensure you are provided with the care you need.

• Durable power of attorney for finances.  As with a healthcare power of attorney, this one lets you appoint someone to manage your finances for you should you be unable to make decisions for yourself. You may provide your agent with as much authority as you wish — such as paying everyday expenses for you and your family, handling transactions with banks and other financial institutions, managing your retirement accounts, and buying and selling insurance policies and annuities.

• Organ donation. If you want to donate organs or your body, you need to take some steps to make your desires known. For example, you can obtain an organ-donor card to carry at all times by registering online with a donor registry.

• Burial or cremation. Your family members will want to know if you want your body to be buried or cremated. Advance arrangements will make it much easier. In addition, you can also document your wishes regarding the timing of the cremation or burial, as well as your preferences regarding a memorial service.

• Wills and trusts.Cullen and Irving have a comprehensive chapter discussing how wills and certain trusts work, with a detailed discussion of the advantages of specific types of trusts, including methods to avoid probate. (These methods should be discussed with your attorney.) An important section discusses factors you should consider in selecting executors and trustees. Include in your records a list of each key estate-planning document, with details regarding the professional (if applicable) who helped prepare each document.

• Insurance. Identify any life insurance policies you own, including the associated coverage and contact information. Also indicate the location of all policies. Cullen and Irving offer detailed information about the different types of life insurance policies available, annuity alternatives, and an in-depth discussion of the pros and cons of long-term care insurance.

• Retirement plans and pensions.List all plans and pensions, including current ones and those you expect to collect from later. Identify the location of the plan documents. Your executor will have to notify the plan administrators of your death, and file claims for any outstanding benefits.

• Secured places and passwords. Almost everyone today uses passwords, access keys and PINs. Your agent, executor or survivors will need access to this information. The book includes an important section discussing who should have access to your safe deposit box.

If you haven’t established a comprehensive estate plan or haven’t taken the time to organize your records in a way that will help your executor, trustee, agents and survivors, now is the time to do it. Get it Together will help you do it the right way.

Elliot Raphaelson welcomes your questions and comments at elliotraph@gmail.com.

© 2015 Elliot Raphaelson. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.