Prepare the documents you need before you die

A man lying on the floor as he fills out important tax papers.

Fill out the documents you need before you die. Do it now. (Photo Credit: CC BY-SA/Christopher/Flickr)

Never assume that matters of your estate – however humble – will sort themselves out before you die. It is your responsibility to navigate the maze of legal documents before your demise. Learn about the documents you need before you die.

Sign and ensure your heirs are aware

Preparing an advance directive, qualified domestic relations order or other paperwork related to an estate or trust is a good start, and it is vitally important that your heirs remain in the loop and know where to find your documents. A lack of ready documents at the time of your death can prove financially ruinous.

The National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators notes that state treasuries currently hold as much as $32.9 billion in unclaimed assets of which heirs are unaware. Thankfully, websites like and are available to aid in the search. AARP’s web portal is another useful resource.

The best plan is to keep those documents you need before you die in a safe place. Whether it’s a folder, filing cabinet, fireproof home safe or bank safe deposit box, find a place where your heirs can access this important information.

The documents you need before you die

  1. The original copy of your will – Your heirs need to know who inherits what. Plus, if you leave underage children behind, a clear definition of guardianship will be necessary. Set up a revocable living trust for the greatest flexibility, and keep it updated with power-of-attorney forms as needed. A letter of instruction is also important, even though it isn’t legally binding, says the Wall Street Journal. Overall, this combination is a great way to avoid the pangs of probate.
  2. Proof of ownership – This includes home and land ownership, cemetery plots, vehicles, stock, corporate agreements, etc.
  3. Banking records – Keep record of all accounts, including online log-ins. Let your heirs know where the safe-deposit boxes are located.
  4. Health care documents – A durable health-care power-of-attorney is vital in situations where life-preserving decisions must be made while you’re incapacitated. Consult with a lawyer to ensure it complies with state and federal law. An Authorization to Release Protected Healthcare Information form is also important, as it works in tandem with advance directives like a living will or power of attorney.
  5. Life insurance and retirement accounts – If you have the assets, take the time to draw up these documents. Pensions, annuities, IRAs and 401(k)s can make life that much easier for your spouse and children.
  6. Marriage and divorce records – If you’re leaving a spouse behind, he or she must know where these documents are stored. Judgments, decrees and all paperwork outlining the parameters of child support and alimony should be close at hand.

How to make a will



Wall Street Journal

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