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By: Karen Holyoke, Shareholder, Eaton Peabody

Essential Documents and Storage Tips

Being able to easily locate certain important documents can be a life saver for your loved ones in the event of your incapacity or passing, making a difficult situation less stressful for them to navigate. Just what are the essential documents that everyone should have?

Last Will & Testament

Also known simply as a “Will”, this document outlines how your assets should be distributed after you die and nominates a person to act as executor, or what certain states call the “Personal Representative”, to settle your affairs. If you have young children, it will also designate who you wish to act as a guardian of your children if both you and your child’s other parent are not able to care for them, and usually also will establish a trust to ensure your assets are available for your children’s support but without making those assets freely available to children who may not have the maturity to manage large sums of money. Everyone should have a Will, but it is especially important for those who have blended families or a partner to whom they are not married since the laws that distribute your assets if you don’t have a Will may not reflect your wishes and could result in hardship on your current partner or spouse.

Revocable or “Living” Trust

Some people opt to put their assets in a trust during their lifetime that is intended to ensure there is no need to open an estate through the probate court at your passing. This document will establish someone as your successor trustee to step in to manage the trust assets in the event you are not able to do so yourself and will provide instructions on how you want the trust assets distributed after your passing. It is especially useful if you have property in more than one state because you do not want your family to have to open probate in multiple states at the time of your passing.

Power of Attorney

This document designates someone to manage your finances and sign legal documents on your behalf if you become incapacitated. There are two main types: durable (immediately effective and works even if you become incapacitated) and springing (only takes effect if incapacitated). Sometimes called by the acronym “POA”, this is an immensely powerful and important document. If you do not have a POA in place, in the event of your incapacity your loved ones will need to go to court to have a guardian and conservator appointed who can act on your behalf. That is a time consuming and potentially expensive process that can be avoided with this simple document that is inexpensively prepared. You want to pick someone to serve as your agent who you trust completely to make decisions that are in your best interest.

Advance Healthcare Directive (Living Will)

This document names an agent to make medical decisions for you and specifies your wishes for medical care (or withholding of care) if you can’t speak for yourself. It can also specify cremation, funeral or burial arrangements.

Other Helpful Documents

Financial Documents

This includes bank statements, investment records, retirement account information, and tax returns. Having these documents organized and accessible ensures that someone needing to step in to manage your financial affairs has an immediate understanding of the extent of your assets and where they are located. A list that collects all of this information in one place can be very helpful.

Insurance Policies

Records related to any insurance policies including auto, homeowners, personal umbrella policies, and health insurance are important to maintain. At the very least, a list establishing policy numbers and the identity of the applicable insurance company can be helpful. Often children report that they have no idea if their parent had life insurance. It is always a relief if the child does not have to rely on the detective work of going through the mail for some hint of communication, and instead have this information maintained somewhere accessible when needed.

Property Deeds and Titles

These documents are the proof of ownership of your real estate and vehicles. Today, having your original deed in your possession is less important because property records are easily searchable online in most places, but vehicle titles are essential to sell or transfer a vehicle and should be kept in a safe and secure location.

Birth Certificates, Social Security Cards, and Passports

These are important identification documents while you are living that need to be safely secured. They do not typically serve any purpose after your passing.

Military Records

Records pertaining to any military service can help a loved one determine the benefits to which you are entitled are extremely helpful.

Document Storage Tips

The original signed Will, no matter how old, is required to be filed with the Probate Court if your estate needs to be opened. It is essential to safeguard that document and always know where it is. In addition, your spouse or trusted advisor needs to know where to find it because when it is needed most, you won’t be available to tell them. Many attorneys offer a service to clients as a courtesy to store their estate planning documents, which not only ensures the document is secured but also that your loved ones can call and quickly get what they need. Some clients ask if they should keep their will in a safe deposit box. This is only advisable if your trusted advisor can access the safe deposit box at the time of your passing as a joint owner or a Transfer on Death beneficiary. Otherwise, no one will be able to access the very documents needed without court intervention, which can add to the costs of administering your estate.

Other original documents that have great importance are POAs and Advance Health Care Directives. While POAs and Advance Health Care Directives are typically copied and provided to those third parties who need them, like financial institutions and hospitals, some of those parties require attested copies which can only be prepared by a notary in possession of the original.

Important documents other than your Will should be stored somewhere secure and fireproof. Safe deposit boxes, fireproof safes, and other similar options are good approaches. You should always ensure that the person you have named as an agent under a POA or your Personal Representative under your Will, knows where your important documents are stored and has access if you are not available. Lists of bank and brokerage accounts and insurance policies should be stored together with those documents, and it is never a bad idea to ensure your estate planning attorney has a copy of such lists in their files.

Ensuring you have these documents in place and stored safely and accessible to your loved ones is one of the last acts of caring we can do for family and friends and can greatly ease their stress in potential crisis situations. A little effort today secures your future and peace of mind and is a sound investment that pays dividends!

Means Wealth Management is a registered investment adviser. The information in this material is for educational purposes only and is not intended to act as individualized tax, legal, financial or investment advice. Please consult a qualified attorney or tax professional for individualized legal or tax advice. Please contact a financial advisor for specific information regarding your individualized financial and investment planning needs.