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How Do I Organize Estate Planning Documents, So Family Can Find Them?

A will is just one of a several critical documents—some formal, some not—that can alleviate stress and ensure an individual’s wishes are actually followed as they intended.

Keeping track of certain estate planning documents and talking about them with your loved ones, who are likely to live after you pass, can be unsettling. However, they can make their lives easier. Your children and beneficiaries should always know where your estate documents are, says Lancaster Online in the article “The paper trail: Keep important documents in order to make it easy on family and friends.”

A will is just one of several important documents that survivors will need to locate. Having access to all estate planning documents will also avoid assets or debts being overlooked. It doesn’t matter if a person owns a single home or has a vast empire of property or multiple investment accounts: being organized matters.

The first mistake people make is not having an estate plan at all. Once assets begin to accumulate, there needs to be a plan to distribute them. An estate planning attorney can work with the person and their family to create the necessary documents and the overall estate plan. The next step is to update that plan, as changes occur in life and in the law.

A growing problem is accessing digital accounts. Now that bills are paid online and statements are issued electronically, having a comprehensive list of bills, investment accounts, property, insurers and contact information for your CPA, financial advisor and estate planning attorney becomes even more important.

Create a list and let executors and heirs know where that list is. If possible, consolidate some accounts to make the process of settling the estate easier. If health is failing, it becomes more important to take care of this sooner rather than later.

Families left without a list of any kind are advised to start with tax returns, as they contain a wealth of information.

One of the most important things about a will is that someone is going to need to find it. If it’s in a fire-safe box at home and can be located, that’s good. If it is in a safe deposit box in a bank, that may present some problems, unless the executor is on the list of those permitted to access the box and they know where the keys are.

A copy of the will does not work. An original, with inked signatures from the testator and two witnesses must be presented to the court. If there are minor children, the will must name a guardian for the children, or the court may determine that the child is vulnerable and place them with care at a foster home, until a guardian can be determined.

One document that is growing in popularity is a letter of intent. It is not a legally binding document, but is a letter written to survivors to explain the decedent’s reasoning for how the estate was divided, or what specific personal items they want to go to which person. People struggling with grief often create storms over minor things, like Aunt Sara’s first toy doll or Uncle Henry’s fishing rod. The letter might be used to uphold the will, if there is an estate contest.

Maintain the documents in an organized manner, whether a binder, folder, or a pile in a specified location. Tell family members where the documents are, so they can find them easily.

Reference: Lancaster Online (May 1, 2019) “The paper trail: Keep important documents in order to make it easy on family and friends”

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