Getting your documents organized can seem like a daunting task. Maybe you’ve considered organizing all the necessary documents and making all the right calls, but you just aren’t quite sure where to begin. Good news! Below, you will find a checklist of important documents to gather as well as guidance regarding what avenues to pursue while getting your affairs in order.

Gather All Your Important Documents

The information and documents listed below will apply to most families. However, there may be additional documents that are important to you and your family. Think through any additional documentation that would be helpful and include it. The list below is an excellent starting place and covers the vast majority of what you will need to include when you start getting your affairs in order.

  • Full legal name
  • Social Security number/card
  • Legal residence
  • Date and place of birth
  • Names and addresses of spouse and children
  • Location of birth and death certificates and certificates of marriage, divorce, citizenship, and adoption (whichever are applicable)
  • Employers and dates of employment
  • Education and military records
  • Names and phone numbers of religious contacts (if applicable)
  • Names and phone numbers of close friends, relatives, doctors, lawyers, and financial advisors
  • Medications taken regularly (keep this updated!)
  • Location of living will and other legal documents
  • Sources of income and assets – pension from your employer, IRAs, 401(k)s, interest, royalties, etc.
  • Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid information
  • Insurance information (life, health, long-term care, home, etc.) with policy numbers and agents’ names and phone numbers
  • Copy of most recent income tax return
  • Location of most up-to-date will with an original signature
  • Liabilities, including property tax
  • Mortgages and debts
  • Location of original deed of trust for home
  • Car title and registration
  • Credit and debit card names and numbers
  • Location of safe deposit box and key

An important note on how to keep your documents safe, especially in the face of natural disasters:

There are fire and water secure cases available for purchase that would be ideal for protecting your important documents. Often, the cases are small enough to carry and have a locking mechanism. Of course, there are other ways to keep your documents safe, but the main idea here is to consider how you can keep your documents safe, secure, and accessible in case of emergency.

Estate Planning

Estate planning is about ensuring that your wishes are carried out regarding your estate. While most of us don’t have a literal estate with a grand manor and a stable full of horses, we do all have an “estate.” In legal terms, our estate consists of everything we own – car, home, other real estate, bank accounts, investment accounts, 401(k)s, insurance policies, furniture, personal possessions and even pets.

By determining what your wishes are, who will receive what and when, and who is responsible for carrying out your wishes, you participate in estate planning. If you are interested in estate planning, please review the questions below and determine if you have taken care of them fully.

  1. Do you have a legal will?

In essence, writing a legal will is one of the best things you can do for your family. To reduce the risk of misunderstandings, heartache, and the possible headache of taking your estate through probate court, it’s best if you clearly outline who gets what and when. In fact, state law determines the distribution of a person’s property and assets if there is no legal will. So, if you don’t have a legal will, would you like to consider writing one? If you would like to write one, first talk with an attorney or try out a web service that specializes in legal documents.

  1. If you do have a legal will, have you appointed an executor? And does your chosen executor have access to and know where to find all of your important documents?

Above all, the executor of your will should be someone you trust. They will carry out the wishes outlined in your legal will to the letter.

  1. Have you named your beneficiaries?

Beneficiaries are the people or organizations that will receive your assets and/or property after your death. In general, it is a good practice to double-check who your beneficiaries are on your legal will and on any life insurance policies you may have so that you may ensure that everything still reflects your wishes.

  1. Do you want or need a trust?

If you are unfamiliar with trusts, they are similar to a will. Both a will and a trust are meant to spell out your wishes regarding your assets and property. The main difference between the two is that a will is effective only after you die and then must be probated (carried out) by the court system and your chosen executor. On the other hand, in the case of a trust, there is no need to go through the court system – your successor trustee (the executor, if you will) would carry out your wishes after your death as they are written in the trust.

Additionally, with a trust, your successor trustee can manage your financial, healthcare, or legal affairs if you become incapacitated. Talk with an estate planner to see if this option is right for you. Typically, a trust is helpful if you have a large number of assets and property.

  1. Have you considered your digital estate?

If you have used an email account, a networking website, or bought items online, you have a digital estate. It’s just as important to determine the future of your digital estate as your physical estate. For suggestions on how to manage your digital estate, please click here.

  1. Do you have any dependents (including pets)? Have you made your wishes clear regarding their well-being?

Most people know that they should indicate who will care for their dependents once they are gone. However, pets are also an important part of the family, and while we love them dearly, sometimes we overlook them in the estate planning process. To that end, make sure to include any veterinary documentation in your important paperwork and outline who should take over the care of your beloved animals.

Funeral Planning

No matter your level of interest, funeral planning needs to be on your list of things to do as you get your affairs in order. For additional information, click on the links below:

Advance Care Directive (also known as Advance Healthcare Directive)

In short, an advance care directive (ACD) ensures that, if you become incapacitated, your medical wishes are fulfilled. Two documents, the living will and the healthcare power of attorney, make up an ACD. It is important to sit down with those closest to you and decide what your wishes are regarding medical care. Not to mention, the decisions you make today will help your loved ones in the future. For more information regarding preparation of your advance care directives, click here.

Keep It Current

It’s very important to remember to keep your information current, most especially regarding your legal documents and beneficiary information. Wherever you keep this information, you will also need to update your tax return yearly. Make sure to appoint a new executor if the one you have currently chosen moves away or is unable to fulfill his or her duties. If you move, make sure to update your current address on all your documents, policies, accounts, and assets. At the beginning, it’s quite an undertaking to gather all the information. But, once it’s together, updating is simple.

Also, you might consider holding an annual or biannual family meeting to go over your wishes and your estate. For some families, this may not be pleasant or even possible. But if you can schedule family meetings, it’s an excellent time to let everyone know how your assets are going to be distributed. This will give you the opportunity to answer their questions, set their expectations, and hopefully, prevent any family disagreements over your final wishes.