The time following the death of a loved one, is often full of grief and high emotions. It’s not easy to think with a clear and focused mind while planning a funeral service or immediately afterwards. To help ease this difficult season for your heirs, it’s a good idea to have a plan in place for the handling of your estate. Think of it as a roadmap to where your important documents and assets are located and be mindful that a good amount of this needs to be accessed digitally because there may not be a paper trail.

The first step is having frank and open discussions about the details of the accounts. If someone is a joint holder, they need to know why certain investments were chosen. However, one should not be expected to remember this information while grieving. Therefore, it’s best to map out with step-by-step instructions how to access assets starting with all emergency contacts. The contact list should include heirs, the attorney, accountant, executor of the will, and guardian for any children or pets. Ideally it should also include a list of people who should be made aware of your death, especially friends and other people who your family members may not be familiar with. A second list of anyone with a key or code to the house, mailboxes, lock boxes, storage units and the like should be included in the event that person is not part of the immediate family.

Be sure to include:

  • your personal preferences for the funeral and any prearrangements that may have been made.
  • what will happen to your pets.
  • all pertinent documents including, wills & trusts, the last five years of tax returns, birth and death certificates, social security cards, marriage certificate and divorce decrees, adoption papers, deeds, stock power, your state tax inheritance waiver if applicable and the location of your safe deposit box and vehicle titles.
  • For accounts held in trust, the trustee certification showing the successor trustee and for joint accounts, a letter of authorization signed by the surviving tenant if assets are moving anywhere other than the second name on the account.

Having a social security number is helpful with any monies that pay interest or dividends and are reported to the IRS. With CDs, bonds, stocks or other assets that do not pay interest or dividends and are not listed on tax returns, clearly list the financial agency, account numbers, and locations. Any passwords that are needed should also be included.

One item that can be overlooked is any outstanding debt. This includes credit cards, student loans, auto financing information, alimony or child support, mortgages and home equity loans, personal loans and automatic payment accounts used for streaming services, Wi-Fi and the like.

Whether it’s an asset or a debt, if there are any paper account statements, trade confirmations and other pertinent information, make sure they are in a safe and logical place to be located easily.

Be sure to designate beneficiaries. This supersedes a will and takes these accounts out of the probate process. Some assets are not included in a will and need a beneficiary listed, including retirement plans such as a 401K, 403B, or IRA, life insurance and annuities.  Many banks also allow a beneficiary or a time of death (TOD) person for a checking account. Regularly check and make sure all beneficiary information is accurate and updated.

And don’t forget social media. Leave passwords and preferences for all social media accounts. Do you want them to remain up? If so, for how long? Or do you want them taken down immediately? These are things survivors should know so they can follow through on according to your wishes.

Finally, including a legacy letter to send a final message to family and friends may be something you want to do.

This information should be kept secure, but accessible. A safe deposit box is not an option as there will be a delay due to the requirement of a death certificate and proof of executor. Keeping this information organized and in a secure place is not only beneficial when a loved one dies but also in case of a natural disaster, terrorist attack or personal medical emergency. Remember, it is also part of your family history.