As an estate planning attorney, I answer questions every day about the best way to go about drawing up a will, creating a living trust, and applying for Medicaid. One question, however, is not quite as common: how should I organize all of my estate planning documents?
While it may not seem like it, this question is actually very important. After all, what use are estate planning documents to you and your family if no one can find them? Your family will likely need these documents in a time of crisis or grief, which is why it is crucial that you to make them accessible.
We place all of our client’s documents in a red notebook. On the spine, it states “Estate Planning Documents.” On the front cover, it gives our firm name and contact information. The first page is a table of contents that lists every document inside of the notebook. Tabs organizing the documents are numbered and color coded to match the table of contents. We put all signed client documents in it. When we do estate planning with living trusts, these documents include the living trusts for the husband and wife as well as their wills, living wills, health care powers of attorney, and living wills. We also include a funding instruction letter that tells them how to coordinate all of their assets with their living trusts. We handle things this way for our unmarried clients, too.
After twenty-five years of practice, I learned that many clients lose these documents if they are not kept together in one place. This is why we put them in this notebook.
We also recommend that our clients put this red notebook on a bookshelf at home. This way, even if they never tell anyone anything about their estate plan (we recommend you do!), someone will find it when they go through their home.
You may wish to put other documents in this red notebook. A recent article from AARP outlines the steps you should take to effectively organize your documents.
First, gather together all of your important paperwork, including:
- Birth certificate
- Marriage certificate
- Death certificate
- Divorce papers
- Military records
- Driver’s license
- Passport / citizenship papers
- Living will
- Powers of attorney
- Letters of instruction with funeral arrangements and important contact information
- Insurance policies, including life, disability, and long-term care
- Information about safety deposit boxes
AARP states you should then keep the documents in a safe place and make a back-up set to keep somewhere else. We do this for all of our clients. We keep a scanned version of each document that our clients sign, and we have redundant storage in our office. (We don’t use the cloud, so our client data stays secure). If you wish to send anything to a child or trusted advisor, just tell us, and we email it to them. If you keep the red notebook on a bookshelf, it should be safe, and your family and you can easily find it.
AARP recommends that you review the documents to make sure that everything is accounted for and up to date. We stay in touch with all of our clients each year, usually with a mailing in January and something else later in the summer. We remind our clients to review their estate plan. By doing this, we make sure that at least once a year you think about your estate plan. You need to review it from time to time to make sure it remains appropriate. To encourage our clients to review their plan and make any necessary changes, we offer a low-cost appointment.