The 25 Documents You Need Before You Die

July 6, 2011
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It isn’t enough simply to sign a bunch of papers establishing an estate plan and other end-of-life instructions. You also have to make your heirs aware of them and leave the documents where they can find them.

Consider: At least 10 states have been investigating whether some of the country’s largest insurers are failing to pay out unclaimed life policies to beneficiaries. California and Florida have held public hearings on the issue in recent weeks.

Insurers say they are behaving lawfully. Under policy contracts, they aren’t required to take steps to determine if a policyholder is still alive, but instead pay a claim when beneficiaries come forward.

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You can avoid such problems by securing important documents and telling your family where they are stored.

Jean Parr is grateful that her mother obsessed about the subject. “I really didn’t want to think about it,” says Ms. Parr, 54 years old, a manager at the American Chemical Society in Washington. But when her mom died in 2005, she knew exactly where to look for the will, the key to a safe-deposit box and documents indicating her mother had paid and arranged for her own funeral.

The financial consequences of failing to keep your documents in order can be significant. According to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, state treasurers currently hold $32.9 billion in unclaimed bank accounts and other assets. (You can search for unclaimed assets at MissingMoney.com.)

Most experts recommend creating a comprehensive folder of documents that family members can access in case of an emergency, so they aren’t left scrambling to find and organize a hodgepodge of disparate bank accounts, insurance policies and brokerage accounts.

You can store the documents with your attorney, lock them away in a safe-deposit box or keep them at home in a fireproof safe that someone else knows the combination to.

That isn’t to say you should keep everything. Sometimes people hold onto so many papers that loved ones can’t find the important ones easily.

In 2008, Jane Bissler, a counselor in Kent, Ohio, approached her then-87-year-old mother about organizing her documents. Because her mom was a widow with relatively simple finances and two homes, Ms. Bissler, 57, says she figured it would be a relatively simple task.

Instead, it took an entire year for Ms. Bissler and her mother to go through all of her papers, which included documents from eight bank accounts, utility bills from the 1950s and reams of canceled checks.

The two of them pared down the stash from four four-drawer filing cabinets to one two-drawer cabinet, shredding anything extraneous. Ms. Bissler and her mother visited banks and brokerages to ensure she was listed on all of her mother’s accounts. Her mother died in May 2009.

“It would have been a total nightmare if we hadn’t gone through it all with her,” Ms. Bissler says. “It was that Depression-era stuff where you keep everything and hide other things.” Ms. Bissler estimates that having the documents organized ahead of time spared them from ordering an additional 15 copies of the death certificate and “years” of time.

Here is a rundown of the most important documents you’ll need to have signed, sealed and delivered. You should start collecting these as soon as possible and update them every few years to reflect changes in assets and preferences. Some–such as copies of tax returns or recent child-support payments–need to be updated more often than others.

Continued

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