Putting Your Life In Order Or On Paper

After the much needed purging/cleaning up the house, scheduling donations and curb-side pickup the entire month of January, I am finally ready to tackle the rest of putting my life in order. You know, documentation, files, passwords, and will. Believe it or not, it’s never to early but it is too late when something unplanned happens.

So to make life easier for my beneficiaries, I have taken the following into consideration when organizing – simply put- how it should go down when I am no longer living and breathing. Apparently there are 12 documents we need to have ready and easily accessible.


Why you need it: To choose an executor and spell out your final wishes for how your estate should be distributed after you die.

What happens without it: You die “intestate” and your assets go through probate, where your state’s intestacy laws determine how to pay your debts and distribute your assets according to survivorship rights in that state, McMillan says.

Living Revocable Trust 

Why you need it: To retain control of your assets while you’re alive, and to appoint a trustee to transfer assets directly to your beneficiaries, avoiding probate

What happens without it: Your estate goes through probate. However, a trust needs to be properly funded to work, meaning you’ve transferred ownership and titles of all of your assets from your own name to the trust name, Kollauf says.

Living Will

Why you need it: To state your preferences for end-of-life medical treatment when you become incapacitated or terminally ill, and you can’t speak for yourself

What happens without it: State law determines who makes these decisions in order of closest relationship. Also, any disagreements on life-sustaining care can wind up in court (think: Terri Schiavo).

Health Care Power of Attorney

Why you need it: To give someone you trust the final say about your medical care when you become incapacitated or seriously injured

What happens without it: State law dictates who can make medical decisions on your behalf. But if conflicts arise among relatives, the battle could go to court, says McMillan.

Financial Power of Attorney

Why you need it: To give someone permission and authority to manage your finances when you can’t do it yourself due to illness or distance

What happens without it: No one can access your financial accounts or pay bills on your behalf. That could put you behind on meeting your financial obligations and rack up debt, says Kollauf.

Designated Beneficiary Accounts

Why you need it: To ensure your beneficiaries can easily file a claim and receive any benefits you’ve left in their name on life insurance, retirement, and annuity accounts

What happens without it: Your survivors will have to inventory all of your assets to figure out what companies hold these policies, Kolauff says. That can take substantial time and effort.

Copy of Marriage License or Divorce Decree

Why you need it: To transfer ownership of assets to a surviving spouse

What happens without it: It could take a few weeks or more to order a certified marriage license or a divorce decree, which are both critical to establishing (or disproving) spousal benefits and entitlements.

Copy of Latest Federal Tax Return

Why you need it: To help your agent file your taxes if you become incapacitated, or to file a final tax return after you die

What happens without it: Your taxes could be filed late, incurring penalties and liens. If you use an accountant, list his or her contact information with your tax returns too.

Financial Accounts

Why you need it: To identify what banks and other financial institutions you do business with to pay bills or distribute assets

What happens without it: Again, it will take detective work and time to get to the bottom of it. Meanwhile, your bills will go unpaid and asset distributions could be delayed. Tip: Designating your bank accounts “transferable on death” to specific beneficiaries keeps them out of probate, Kollauf says.

Letter of Intent/Instructions

Why you need it: To give your executor clear directions on how to manage/distribute your estate

What happens without it: It’s a free-for-all among your survivors, McMillan says.

Items to include in a letter of intent: personal property assignments, pet care wishes, passwords and logins to online accounts, where to find titles, deeds and other paperwork, contact info and names of your lawyer, accountant and other professionals, safety deposit box and key location, Social Security number, birth certificates for you and minor children, and other key paperwork.

Funeral Plans

Why you need it: To make it clear what kind (if any) memorial service you want and whether you want a burial or cremation

What happens without it: It’s not a legal document, but it makes your loved ones’ lives much easier when the clock is ticking and decisions need to be made quickly, McMillan says. If you’ve pre-purchased a burial plot, cremation or services, you’ll want to leave a copy behind in a place loved ones can easily find it, she adds.

Business Succession Plans

Why you need it: To outline what should happen to your business and who should be in control if you die or become incapacitated

What happens without it: Your business (and your employees) could suffer financially, and operations might be impacted. Ideally, your business should have its own living trust, separate from a personal trust, with a special trustee named to keep things running smoothly, Kollauf advises.

Suggested Topic of Interest: How to live life without major regrets: 8 lessons from older Americans


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