Estate Planning: The Documents You Need

Last Updated Aug 15, 2011 7:02 PM EDT

Given my previous career as a financial planner and investment advisor, I used to tell people to "do estate planning". With the recent passing of my father in-law, I realized that there are lots of things you can do beyond meeting with a qualified estate attorney (which I highly recommend) to make the settlement of your estate easier for your heirs.

Here's a list of what you need:

Legal Documents:
  • Will
  • Letter of Instruction
  • Power of Attorney
  • Health Care Proxy
  • Trusts (not necessary, but many people have either revocable (changeable) or irrevocable (not-changeable), depending on family situations)
  • "DNR" or "Do Not Resuscitate" order (this may need to be completed upon each new entry to hospital or nursing home)
Accounts
  • List of all bank accounts
  • List of all user names and passwords
  • List of automatic pay accounts with name and contact information of each payee (hat tip to listener Eileen R!)
  • List of safe-deposit boxes
  • 401 (k) accounts
  • IRA's, Roth IRAs
  • Pension documents
  • Annuity contracts
  • Brokerage account information (with broker's name and contact phone number)
  • Detailed list of savings bonds
  • Life insurance policies (private and through employer)
  • Long Term Care insurance policies
Other Documents
  • Housing, land and cemetery deeds
  • Mortgage accounts
  • Proof of loans made
  • Vehicle title
  • Partnership and corporate operating agreements
  • Previous three year's tax returns
  • Marriage license
  • Divorce papers
  • Military discharge information (we recovered my father in-law's 1945 discharge papers and actually needed them!)
  • List of contact information (not only contacts on accounts, but the names, current addresses and Social Security numbers of all people named in the legal documents, as well as the contact information for the estate attorney and CPA who will be handling the estate.)
Once you have done all of this hard work, you need to inform your executor/executrix as to where everything is stored. Some people recommend an at-home fireproof safe, but my brother in-law, the engineer, told me that many of these safes are often useless in a serious fire. I prefer keeping a copy of all documents with your attorney or in a safe-deposit box at the local bank.

A well-planned estate is a wonderful legacy you can leave your heirs--instead of untangling a messy estate, they can concentrate on mourning their loved one.
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    Jill Schlesinger, CFP®, is the Editor-at-Large for CBS MoneyWatch. She covers the economy, markets, investing or anything else with a dollar sign. Prior to the launch of MoneyWatch in 2009, Jill was the chief investment officer for an independent investment advisory firm. In her infancy, she was an options trader on the Commodities Exchange of New York.

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