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Getting Your Estate Organized: Thirty (or so) Documents You Should Have For Your Spouse, Your Power of Attorney, or Your Executor


Having your estate information well-organized can save your family and heirs thousands of dollars in legal, accounting, and administration expenses. Having this information available to your health care and financial power of attorney in the event of a disability would make your agent’s job enormously easier. Here is a list of what to assemble to make life easier for your spouse, your children, your health care and financial powers of attorney, and your executors:

Personal Data

    1. Birth certificate (you, your spouse, maybe the children, too);
    2. Marriage certificate, if appropriate;
    3. Divorce decree and marital settlement agreement, if relevant;
    4. Discharge papers for veterans benefits; and
    5. Citizenship papers if a naturalized citizen.

List of Contacts and Contact Information

    1. Accountant;
    2. Lawyer;
    3. Investment advisors;
    4. Personal physician;
    5. Banker;
    6. Auto, home, and liability insurer;
    7. Life insurance/annuity agent; and
    8. Children or other beneficiaries under your Will or Trust.

Life Insurance and Long-term Care Information

    1. Annual policy statement for each life insurance policy (more recent the better); destroy any life insurance policies that have lapsed. It will save your executor from having to confirm they are no longer in force. The policies themselves are probably not so important unless policy terms are likely to be contested;
    2. Up-to-date life insurance beneficiary information, i.e., who gets the proceeds if you die; and
    3. Copy of long-term care insurance contract (this is a contract which people may actually need to read, together with a recent statement of current benefits). If you never make a claim, your executor may be able to receive a partial return of the last premium you paid.

Retirement Benefits

    1. Recent statement for IRAs (Roth or traditional);
    2. Current IRA beneficiary information;
    3. Recent statement for any pension, profit-sharing or 401(k) benefits;
    4. Current beneficiary information on pension, profit-sharing or 401(k) benefits;
    5. Information on any group benefits (life, health, or retirement benefits), including any that continue after retirement such as reduced group insurance; and
    6. Recent statement from any nonqualified (non-IRA) annuity beneficiary information or nonqualified annuity.

Investment Documents

    1. Recent statements for all nonretirement investment accounts; and
    2. Pay on death (POD) information if accounts are POD. If account is payable on death, who gets it?

Cash Accounts and Notes Receivable

    1. Recent statements for cash accounts (checking, savings, money market) showing automatic deposits and debits, especially automatic payments which would be inappropriate to continue in the event of your death;
    2. Pay on death beneficiary if accounts are POD; and
    3. Copies of any notes evidencing money owned to you. Show current balances; if you have made loans to children or grandchildren make sure there is a written note. Keep track of the balance due.

Digital Information (for any online, non-paper statement accounts)

    1. Log-in and passwords for: (i) investment accounts; (ii) checking and savings accounts; (iii) retirement accounts; (iv) Facebook; (v) LinkedIn; and (vi) email accounts.

Health Care

    1. Copy of Medicare, Medicare supplement, and Medicare D (drugs) insurance ID cards;
    2. Health care power of attorney;
    3. Personal medical history, including a summary of drugs you are taking;
    4. Authorization to release health care information to health care power of attorney; and
    5. Advance directives, e.g., living will, do not resuscitate orders, anatomical gift wishes and the like.

Proof of Ownership

    1. Deed(s) to house(s) or other personally owned real estate (a copy of a tax bill would also be nice);
    2. Recent mortgage statement (or copy of satisfaction if mortgage is paid);
    3. Copies of vehicle titles (car, boat, motorcycles);
    4. Stock certificates, EE Bonds (if you still have any) although all of these are better held electronically in book entry accounts (easier to transfer, no risk of physical loss);
    5. Partnership agreements, LLC formation and operation agreements, relevant employment contracts or compensation agreements if benefits are continuing;
    6. Personal property inventory, electronic or video recording of valuable personal property;
    7. Information on patents, copyrights, trademarks, royalties, if any.

Debts and Obligations

    1. Apart from monthly reoccurring household items, a list of debts owed and to whom; and
    2. Copies of current notes payable and mortgages where appropriate.

Tax Information

    1. A copy of your tax returns (federal, state, local trust)—tax returns are an essential cross-check to see if all assets have been accounted for; and
    2. Copies of the latest gift tax return (if any) and a note where old returns can be found).

Funeral or Burial

    1. Cemetery deeds;
    2. Prearranged funeral directions with name of funeral home (note these should be in the possession of the person most likely to make arrangements —not in a document book or a safe deposit box which will not be found until after the funeral); and
    3. A first draft for an obituary (you know more about yourself than anyone else and know what was important for you).

Estate Planning Documents

    1. Most recent Will (mark "revoked" on all prior wills if you feel the need to keep them to establish a consistent testamentary plan);
    2. Trusts—your own Revocable Trust, any trust you created which still has assets, any trusts created by someone else (parents, spouse) where you are either beneficiary or trustee and where the trust still has assets; if a trust is obsolete and has no assets, consider destroying the trust document); and
    3. Financial power of attorney (just keep the most recent one; destroy all the old ones to avoid confusion); and
    4. Copies of prenuptial or marital agreements.

Safe Deposit Box

    1. Note location and number of safe deposit box and location of keys;
    2. Keep an inventory of what is in the safe deposit box;
    3. Make sure your safe deposit box is accessible after you die (e.g., spouse, child is co-owner or the box is leased to your Revocable Trust); and
    4. A copy of homeowner's or specialty insurance schedule where any jewelry, artwork, guns, etc., are listed. (Delete items which you have sold or given away—saves premiums and keeps your executor from looking for what is not there.)

Once You Have Assembled This Information

    1. Choose a secure but convenient location for the book or file (paper or electronic);
    2. Reference its location (paper or electronic) in a note in your safe deposit box;
    3. Let your financial power of attorney and your nominated executor or successor trustee know where the information is kept;
    4. Make sure your spouse (or a trusted child or the executor) knows of the location;
    5. Review this information annually (each December 31 would be a good time);
    6. Add new information, delete obsolete information; if investment institutions have not changed, need not update statements annually; and
    7. Consider consolidating bank, investment, and retirement accounts where no reason for the separate accounts exist. Consolidation makes investment of assets, allocation to market segments, calculating investment return easier, and fewer accounts to deal with reduces administrative expense at death.
    8. Being organized (i) expedites the proper handling of your assets; (ii) saves money; (iii) avoids frustration; (iv) keeps things up to date; and (v) makes you look good.

For questions, please contact John Bannen at (414) 277-5859/john.bannen@quarles.com, or your Quarles & Brady attorney.

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