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Start planning your legacy: how to organize end-of-life documents

While it's difficult to think about, the truth is, we will all die one day. When that time comes, the most difficult tasks fall on the ones we love most. Avoiding the topic can leave you without a plan, and this makes things more difficult for your friends and family after you’re gone. They may be unsure about your wishes or unable to locate important documents, which makes things more expensive and complicated for those left to make the decisions. Taking time to plan your legacy allows you to create a meaningful experience for yourself and the people you care about. 

If you’re not sure what your wishes are, our end-of-life checklist will give you some things to consider.

To ensure that your loved ones are able to get your affairs in order, it’s important to start by organizing all the necessary documents for them in an end-of-life binder or folder. 

Keep an end-of-life folder

Keeping all of your key documents in one place and making sure your family knows where to find this information is an important place to start.

  • A couple of key documents, such as your drivers license and Medicare card, can be kept in your wallet. However, anything that you don’t need on a day-to-day basis can be kept in an end-of-life folder.
  • Your end-of-life document folder can contain lots of important and private information, so you should store it securely, for example in a locked filing cabinet drawer, a home safe, or a safety deposit box at the bank.
  • Alternatively, if you’d rather keep everything digital, you can store your end-of-life documents online using cloud storage such as Dropbox or Google Drive. 

Wherever you decide to keep your documents, make sure they’re protected and that the important people know how to access them.

Documents to store in your end-of-life folder

Knowing which documents your loved ones will need access to can be confusing, especially if you’ve never thought about it before. You may wish to seek the advice of an estate planning lawyer, financial planner, and a licensed funeral director. (Better Place Forests doesn’t provide legal advice or financial planning advice, and is not a licensed funeral director.)

Below, we’ve outlined some of the key documents that your loved ones may need, and why they are important. Feel free to use this list as an end-of-life planning template or checklist to help you get certain matters in order.

Your will

Many of us avoid writing a will because it makes us uncomfortable or we’re not sure how to start. Just remember that you can always add to it later.

In short, your will can outline who gets what and how to distribute your assets. You may appoint an executor — the person who ensures that the terms of the will are carried out correctly. For those with young children, it’s important to list their selected guardians and tell them so they know about potential duties.

In most states, you will need to consult an attorney to help you prepare a will and ensure that the document meets legal requirements. 

Certificate of appointment

If you have assigned an estate executor or other fiduciary responsibility to manage your affairs when you pass away, you may include the certificate of appointment along with the rest of your end-of-life documents, so it is clear from the start who will be handling your estate and processing claims, etc.

Healthcare directives 

There are two documents that you can add to your end-of-life folder to ensure that your medical wishes are followed. 

  • A healthcare power of attorney allows you to appoint a person to make medical decisions on your behalf. 
  • A healthcare directive (or living will) allows you to make particular healthcare choices now. For example, if you don’t want to be kept alive if there is no hope of recovery, your healthcare directive can help you convey that information. 

Banking information

When you pass, the executor of your estate will use your banking information to get your final affairs in order. 

Gather statements and document logins for: 

  • Bank accounts
  • Credit cards
  • IRA 
  • 401k
  • Pension

Consult with your estate planning attorney to designate the destination of the funds in your accounts. Do you want all funds to go to your estate and be distributed through probate, which can take a year or more, or would you like to designate beneficiaries to receive funds directly upon your death? Regardless, you’ll want your financial information to be well-organized and available for loved ones to access.

Insurance details

Friends or family will need to contact your insurance providers to make sure you’re no longer billed. In the case of life insurance, your beneficiaries will need to file a claim to begin receiving their payouts. To make this process easier, you may designate beneficiaries for health, property, car, and life insurance. Document policy information and logins for each insurance provider you have. 

Social Security card

Your family may be eligible to receive survivor benefits when you pass away. If this is the case, they’ll need your Social Security details. Many people carry their Social Security card with them in their wallet, but it’s better to keep it with the rest of your end-of-life documents to keep it safe.

Property documentation

Be sure to include any valuable property that you own, including artwork, collections, cars, and real property like houses or farms. If you don’t transfer ownership of these items prior to your death, they typically pass through probate or automatically go to co-owners. For example, most married people own their home jointly with their spouse, who will automatically become the sole owner upon death. An estate planning attorney can help you with specific strategies for dealing with valuable assets. 

Marriage certificate or domestic partnership agreement

It’s nice to know that if you leave behind a spouse or partner, they’ll be looked after financially. If your significant other is eligible to receive your employer, veteran, or Social Security benefits they may need a marriage certificate or domestic partnership agreement to apply.

Business agreements

Keep any business agreements you have in place, such as a buy-sell agreement or any partnership documents, in your end-of-life folder. It’s important that business partners or your attorney have access to these documents to make sure that your wishes are carried out smoothly. 

Employee benefit statements

If you’re employed by a company, you may include your employee benefit statements with your end-of-life documents, so that it’s clear if your family is entitled to any benefits from your employer and can claim them easily.

Current bills

Including copies of your current bills will help your family and attorney gather relevant information in case accounts need to be transferred to someone else’s name. 

Loan transfer provisions

Unfortunately, many loans don’t go away when we die. Certain leftover debt will be transferred to our beneficiaries or cosigner. While the thought of passing on a financial burden isn’t appealing, it’s one of the realities of making end-of-life plans. You can add special provisions in your will to make sure that remaining assets or money are put towards any outstanding debts. 

Last tax return

It’s surprising to many, but you have to pay taxes the year you pass away. To help your family file your final tax return, you may include a copy of your most recent tax return in your end-of-life folder. This will give your family key information for filing in the future. If you have someone that does your taxes every year, adding their information will be helpful as well. 

Your end-of-life decisions

If you don’t pre-plan your memorial, the details and logistics fall squarely onto your family and loved ones while they’re grieving. It can be emotionally taxing as they try to assume how you’d want to be remembered and what you’d want as part of your legacy. This is why we encourage you to begin making your end-of-life plans now so you can create an experience that embodies your days on earth. 

  • Do you want to be cremated or buried in a traditional cemetery?
  • Do you want to be with nature in a conservation memorial forest?
  • Do you want to be somewhere meaningful or beautiful to you?

Outline all of your wishes so that your family can honor you the way that you’d want. 

Pre-planning allows you to create a meaningful legacy while protecting the ones you love. However, according to our recent research, 70% of respondents had not made their end-of-life plans yet. What’s hopeful is that over 73% of those who have started thinking about plans felt more productive, positive, and reassuring. Taking the time to get your affairs in order will ensure that your loved ones can navigate change peacefully.

Take our pre-planning readiness quiz to see if you’re ready to begin planning your legacy. 

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