It isn’t enough simply to sign a bunch of papers establishing an estate plan and other end-of-life instructions. Consider the reason why you have an estate plan to begin with: to ensure that your wishes for handling anything – from your healthcare, to the care of any minor children or pets, to the distribution of your assets, to even your funeral wishes – are seen to. A well thought-out estate plan eases the burden for those left behind as they will not be left guessing what you may have wanted. However your plan does you no good unless you 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.
You can avoid such problems by securing important documents and telling your family where they are stored. 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.
Creating a comprehensive folder of documents that family members can access in case of an emergency should be incorporated into your estate plan. That way your loved ones aren’t left scrambling to find and organize a hodgepodge of disparate bank accounts, insurance policies and brokerage accounts when the time comes. These documents should be stored in a safe place or with someone you trust, and their location should be shared as part of your estate planning.
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. 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 — need to be updated more often than others.
An original will or trust is the most important documents to keep on file.
A will allows you to dictate who inherits your assets and, if your children are underage, their guardians. Dying without a will means losing control of how your assets are distributed. Instead, state law will determine what happens.
Wills are subject to probate — legal proceedings that take inventory, make appraisals of property, settle outstanding debt and distribute remaining assets. Not having an original document means this already-onerous process could be much more of an ordeal, since family members can challenge a copy of a will in court. This means that if you ever decide to make changes to your document you must be sure to replace your original with the most recent version.
While a will can work in the simplest estate planning situations, we increasingly recommend revocable trusts in addition to wills, since they are more private and harder to dispute. A revocable living trust can also be changed anytime during your lifetime. After you transfer ownership of various assets to the trust, you can serve as the trustee on behalf of beneficiaries you designate. Provided you do so, there aren’t any ongoing fees.
A “letter of instruction” can be a useful supplement to a will or trust, though it doesn’t hold legal weight. It is a good way to make sure your executor has the names and contact information of your attorneys, accountants and financial advisers. The letter of instruction should be readily accessible, particularly if it contains instructions on funeral arrangements.
Also, make sure your heirs have access to a durable financial power-of-attorney form. Without it, no one can make financial decisions on your behalf in the event that you are incapacitated.
Proof of Ownership
You should keep documentation of housing and land ownership, cemetery plots, vehicles, stock certificates and savings bonds; any partnership or corporate operating agreements; and a list of brokerage and escrow mortgage accounts.
If you don’t tell your family that you own such assets, there is a chance they never will find out. In such an event, your family is left to perform their own detective work, watching the mail for real-estate tax bills or combing bank accounts for interest payments, for example.
File any documents that list loans you have made to others, since they could be included as assets in an estate. Similarly, keep a list of any debts you owe to avoid surprising your family. Wills and living trusts generally are drafted to include provisions for how debts should be settled, and creditors have a stipulated period of time in which to file a claim against the estate.
Make the most recent three years of tax returns available, too, as looking at last year’s returns offers a snapshot of what assets to be looking for this year. This also will help your personal representative file a final income-tax and estate return and, if necessary, a revocable-trust return.
Bank and Brokerage Accounts
You should keep a current record of a list of all accounts and online log-in information, and make it easily accessible within your documents so your family can notify the account custodian of your death. If an account becomes dormant, after a certain period of time the money gets confiscated by the state, which is a situation you want to avoid.
Be sure to list any safe-deposit boxes you own, register your spouse or child’s name with the bank and ask them to sign the registration document so they can have access without securing a court order.
Possibly the most important health-care document to fill out in advance is a durable health-care power-of-attorney form. This allows your designee to make health-care decisions on your behalf if you are incapacitated. The document should be compliant with federal health-information privacy laws, so that doctors, hospitals and insurance companies can speak with your designee. You may also need to fill out an Authorization to Release Protected Healthcare Information form.
If you are incapacitated and your family can’t locate a health-care power of attorney, they will have to go to court to get a guardian appointed.
But it isn’t enough to establish a health-care power of attorney; you must also explain to your designee how you would like to be treated in case of incapacity. Writing a living will detailing your wishes would also be helpful in this instance.
The living will and the power of attorney constitute what are called “advance directives”; some states consolidate these into a single form. Terminally ill patients may wish to have their doctors sign a do-not-resuscitate order.
Life Insurance and Retirement Accounts
Copies of life-insurance policies are among the most important documents for your family to have. Family members need to know the name of the carrier, the policy number and the agent associated with the policy.
Like with your bank accounts it is also a good idea to draw up a list of pensions, annuities, individual retirement accounts and 401(k)s for your spouse and children.
An IRA is considered dormant or unclaimed if no withdrawal has been made by age 70 1/2. According to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, tens of millions of dollars languish in unclaimed IRAs every year. If your heirs don’t know about these accounts, they won’t be able to lay claim to them, and the money could languish. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that each year tens of thousands of workers fail to claim or roll over $850 million in 401(k) assets.
Both life insurance policies and retirement accounts allow you to name beneficiaries for the funds to be received. It is essential that these beneficiary names stay up-to-date so that if and when you make a change to your will or trust, you also remember to check the beneficiaries on these types of accounts as well.
Marriage and Divorce
Ensure your spouse knows where you have stored your marriage license. Some policies may require proof of marriage before they honor a spouse’s beneficiary claim which is why this is important.
For divorced people, it is equally important to leave behind the divorce judgment and decree or, if the case was settled without going to court, the stipulation agreement. These documents lay out child support, alimony and property settlements, and also may list the division of investment and retirement accounts. Include the distribution sheet listing bank-account numbers that accompanied the settlement to avoid disputes about ownership or payments due. Also include a copy of the most recent child-support payment order. In the majority of states, the obligation to pay child support still exists after death.
You also should include a copy of the “qualified domestic-relations order,” which can prove your spouse received a share of your retirement accounts.
Design Your Estate Plan Dossier
• Letter of instruction
• Trust documents
Proof of Ownership
• Housing, land and cemetery deeds
• Escrow mortgage accounts
• Proof of loans made and debts owed
• Vehicle titles
• Stock certificates, savings bonds and brokerage accounts
• Partnership and corporate operating agreements
• Tax returns
Bank and Brokerage Accounts
• List of bank/brokerage accounts
• List of all user names and passwords
• List of safe-deposit boxes
• Durable health-care power of attorney
• Authorization to release health-care information
• Living will
• Do-not-resuscitate order
Life Insurance and Retirement
• Life-insurance policies
• Individual retirement accounts
• 401(k) accounts
• Pension documents
• Annuity contracts
Marriage and Divorce
• Marriage license
• Divorce papers