Organizing Your Life’s Records

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The last thing we want to think about during the height of summer is the certainty of death. We would rather organize our garden than our financial paperwork.

For the deceased, all things material matter no more. But for those of us left behind, there’s more to handle than grief and sorrow, especially if you haven’t left written instructions on what to do with your material belongings when you pass on.

You may be thinking “I don’t have an estate, so this doesn’t pertain to me.” But in fact, nearly everyone has an estate because it holds everything you own: your home, car, furniture, bank accounts, investments, jewelry. Most likely, you have thoughts about how to distribute these things to people you love, so it stands to reason you need to leave precise instructions on how, when and what you want to do.

It’s important to leave your estate organized so your loved ones don’t flounder and fight over items that you could have clearly designated. But be sure your family knows exactly where to find your items and records. If you have clear instructions, it will be a smoother process to settle your estate. Having good records could shorten the time it takes to collect insurance, military benefits, veteran’s benefits or an income tax refund.

Review all of your policies to be sure you have updated beneficiaries and correct spelling on your documents. Be sure to include all of your passwords and sign-in information for every account. A safe-deposit box in a financial institution or a home fireproof safe is the best place for these important items. Papers that cannot be replaced or would be costly or troublesome to replace belong in this type of storage. In general, bank account registers, canceled checks, transcripts, medical histories, employment records, tax returns and insurance policies do not need to be kept in a safe deposit box or fireproof home storage.

In order not to overwhelm your family, be sure to check the Internal Revenue Service statutes of limitation on how long to keep certain records. In addition, consider dividing your papers into three major areas: current records, inactive records and permanent records. This will allow someone who is unfamiliar with your system to locate important documents in case of an emergency.

You can turn to the Internet where financial experts offer advice as well. Kiplinger, the personal finance advice and business website, has a Family Records Organizer that has 18 forms and is available as a booklet or can be downloaded for a fee. Lifehacker features a Master Information Kit featuring steps to creating, sharing and updating your information; it can be downloaded in list format from the site.

The Motley Fool website offers free advice on estate planning and also features an estate planning checklist in worksheet format to begin your organization. CBS News MoneyWatch website has a comprehensive system by Jill Schlesinger, CFP®, titled Estate Planning: The Documents You Need.

It may help to think of yourself as a small business. Just like a business, you have important records that need to be organized to save time, trouble, money and frustration. It makes good sense to have a system that will not only serve you during your lifetime, but survive you. It could be as simple as a written notebook in a special drawer or software written specifically for estate planning. Getting started on any recordkeeping system may seem time consuming, but once it is set up, maintaining the system will be easy.

This all may appear on the surface to be a tedious chore, but in fact it’s an act of love, one that’s sure to be appreciated by your spouse and other family members ■

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Papers to Organize
Important papers can be filed in several categories. Remember, your personal situation may differ; this isn’t an exhaustive list. Try to think of anything else that would be expensive or difficult to replace and add it to the list.

Family Records
Education records and diplomas
Employment records
Family advisors’ contact information
Safe location and combination
Safe deposit box key and location
All other keys (cars, homes)
Pet records

Property Records
Auto title and bill of sale
Household inventory
Housing records
Utility records
Property taxes

Financial Records
Contracts, notes & debts
Bank accounts
Credit card information
Investment certificates
Insurance policies
Funeral plan documents
Organizational memberships
Guarantees & warranties
Accounting records
Income tax returns
Retirement records

Legal Records
Will/ trust
Living will
Durable power of attorney
Personal representative or guardian appointments
Birth certificate
Social Security card
Driver’s license copy
Auto insurance card copy
Donor card
Health insurance information
Death certificates
Marriage records
Divorce decrees
Adoption papers
Military service records
Citizenship & naturalization papers
Copyrights & patents