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A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

Documents You Need to Organize for Your Family Before It’s Too Late

If something were to happen to you, would your loved ones know your wishes and how to put your affairs in order? Here are the documents your loved ones will need at their fingertips in order to do so.

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File Stack top view, file folder pace on wood desk backgroundNirat.pix/Shutterstock

Start with a master list

People often put more thought into preparing for the family vacation—the transportation, the timing, the meals—than planning for what happens if the unthinkable happens. But you’re smarter than that, so your plan is to power through this list and start pulling together what you need, beginning with a list or a spreadsheet of every such document. We’re going to refer to that as your Master List, and it should include:

  • Where the original of each document can be found
  • Where copies of each document can be found
  • The names of the attorney, if applicable, who helped you create the document
  • The names and contact information of an accountant or another professional who helps you create the document, if applicable
  • If a document was downloaded from the internet, the website from which it was downloaded
  • Instructions on opening any safe deposit box into which you may deposit some of the items.

Share this Master List and its location with your loved ones who would need to know this information in the event something was to happen to you. You should also check out the 16 things smart people do to prepare for death.

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46+ Documents You Need to Organize for Your Family Before It's Too LateAtstock Productions/Shutterstock

Essential personal records

According to Everplans, which provides document organization and archival services, you should gather together the following items (to the extent applicable) and keep them in a secure place (such as a safe deposit box). Each bullet-pointed item should also be referenced separately on your Master List. In addition, you can electronically scan the items so that there is a digital record of them.

  • Social Security card containing your full legal name
  • Birth certificate
  • Birth certificates (or copies) for your children
  • Passport
  • Driver’s License
  • Marriage certificate
  • Divorce certificate and/or settlement agreement
  • Prenuptial agreement
  • Armed Forces discharge papers
  • Contact information listing all of your email accounts and other contact information, your emergency contacts, your employer, and anyone with duties or powers under any of the other documents on this list
  • Social media accounts, passwords, and instructions on what should be done with those accounts
  • Title/deed/lease to your residence(s) and any other real property you own or rent
  • Title/deed to your vehicles or copy of any lease agreement
  • Most recent tax return (which will contain vital information about you, your assets, your liabilities, and your sources of income)
  • Your resumé (you will want your most updated resumé with these documents because it will have information about your current and last employer, any professional associations and organizations to which you belong, and any schools you attended, all of which may wish to know of what’s happened to you.)
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Closeup of index cards for business school or home organization organize names informationLane V. Erickson/Shutterstock


Your Master List will include a reference to any of the following lists that are applicable to you, as well as where the lists can be found.

  • List of all your social media accounts and info on how to gain access and/or otherwise deal with those accounts.
  • List of all payment accounts such as Paypal and Venmo.
  • List of every credit card with the card number, expiration date, and login and password info for online account management.
  • List of every debit card, including ATM card with the card number and expiration date and any info needed to manage any online account associated with it.
  • List of all mortgages and other loans with the bank or lender’s name, a copy of the loan agreement with the loan number and expiration date, and any info needed to manage any online account associated with it.
  • List of all real property you own or rent.
  • List of all vehicles you own or lease.
  • List of all household utilities (gas, electric, water, phone, cable, internet, etc.) and the providers.
  • List of every bank account, with bank name and whether the bank holds a safe deposit box for you (including money markets and CDs).
  • List of every investment and/or brokerage account, with the associated institution name, phone number, and account number.
  • List of every pension/retirement account including 401(k), IRA, Roth IRA, SEP, and SARSEP.
  • A copy of the first page of your will, along with copies of the first pages of previous versions, with a notation as to the lawyer or law firm that helped create the will. (See below for more information on wills.)
  • A list of all trusts, trust agreements, bank accounts associated with the trust, with a notation as to the lawyer or law firm that helped create the trust. (See below for more information on trusts.)
  • List of all living will/advanced directive/durable power attorney documents and where they can be found. (See below for more information on these documents.)
  • List of medications you take regularly, including dosage and prescribing doctor.
  • List of your allergies including what happens upon exposure, as this question will always be asked by hospital staff.
  • List of close friends and relatives, and all doctors, lawyers, and financial advisers.

Feeling overwhelmed? No need. Just follow these simple tips to getting yourself organized.

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Living Will, HealthCare, and Power of Attorney documents zimmytws/Shutterstock

Advance directive (aka “living will”)

If something catastrophic were to happen to you, you might survive but be, at least temporarily, incapable of conveying your wishes regarding your medical care. That’s what an advance directive—or living will—is for. In an advance directive, you can say if you don’t want to be kept alive by machines or, conversely, if you wish for heroic measures to be taken to keep you alive as long as possible. You can also use an advance directive to spell out your wishes regarding organ donation.

You may already have put together an advance directive (it’s a relatively simple document, which you can put together yourself using a resource like this one), but it’s not worth the paper it’s written on if you haven’t discussed it with your family. So discuss your advance directive with your loved ones, and as with everything else on this list, make sure to reference it in your Master List, along with its location. Find out the important questions you need to ask your parents before its too late.

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fountain pen, glasses and power of attorney fileLifetimeStock/Shutterstock

Durable power of attorney

To close the loop on your medical care in the event that a catastrophe leaves you alive but not conscious or otherwise capable of directing your own medical care, you’ll also need a durable power of attorney by which you appoint a specific person to speak on your behalf when it comes to your medical care. That person is sometimes known as a “healthcare proxy” or “healthcare agent.” That person can be the person closest to you, such as a spouse or an adult child, or it can be someone else whom you feel is better suited to the task.

It’s called a “durable” power of attorney because it remains in place (i.e., it’s durable) after you are not competent to make your own medical decisions, whereas a general power of attorney becomes invalid if you ever become unable to make your own decisions.

Whoever you choose, you should let that person know that you are entrusting them with this responsibility and let them know what your wishes are when it comes to your health. Forms are available for download on sites such as this one. As with all the items on this list, it should be referenced on your Master List, along with where it can be found.

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46+ Documents You Need to Organize for Your Family Before It's Too Latesheff/Shutterstock

Insurance policies

A copy of every insurance policy you own and a set of all claims and explanations of benefits should be kept in a safe location and referenced individually on your Master List, including your individual ID number (and if applicable, group number), as well as the name of your contact at the insurance company or at your insurance broker. These include:

  • Health Insurance
  • Disability Insurance
  • Car Insurance
  • Home Insurance
  • Pet Insurance
  • Other Insurance policies (theft, fire, earthquake, etc)

Thinking about buying some insurance? Some forms of insurance you definitely need, while others? Not so much.

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Last Will and TestamentLifetimeStock/Shutterstock

Last will and testament

A last will and testament is the legal document by which you identify those individuals or organizations that are to receive your property and possessions on your death. These individuals and charities are commonly referred to as the beneficiaries under your last will and testament. State laws regarding wills vary, so you should consult an attorney before preparing one. Your Master List should identify the latest will, where it can be found, and who assisted you in preparing it. Check out these positive life lessons from those whose lives were well-lived.

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stacks of moneyMalochka Mikalai/Shutterstock

Trust funds

A trust fund is a fund comprised of a variety of assets intended to provide benefits to an individual or organization. The Grantor of the Trust establishes the Trust to provide financial security or assistance to the Beneficiary (an individual or an organization). A trust fund may contain cash, stocks, bonds, property, or other types of financial products. The recipient of a trust fund must typically wait until a certain age, or until a specified event occurs, to receive a yearly income from the fund. Prior to this, the Trustee manages the fund in a manner appropriate to the trust fund’s specifications.
If you have created any Trust funds, or if you are the beneficiary of any Trust funds, in addition to listing them as described above, you will need copies (and ideally, an original) of each Declaration of Trust or Trust Agreement, the name of the lawyer or firm that assisted with creating the Trust, and any financial accounts associated with the Trust. Each individual Trust should be identified on the Master List.

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IRS Form 1040: US Individual Income Tax ReturnDawid S Swierczek/Shutterstock

Tax returns

You should keep copies of your last income tax returns for the current and preceding seven years (in case of audit), along with the supporting documentation (such as W-2 forms). Your Master List should identify the years for which you have copies of your tax returns, where they can be found, and the professional who helped you prepare your tax returns. Find out the 32 things your tax accountant won’t tell you.

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calculator with keys and documents are on the tableIgor Zvencom/Shutterstock

Real property deeds, leases, and information pertaining to upkeep

For every piece of real property you own or lease, you should have a deed or lease, any mortgage or loan that is secured by the property or otherwise related to the property, and copies of maintenance information (for example, let’s say you have a chimney; keep records of when you have your chimney swept and who performed the service), and real property tax bills/receipt for payment. All of this should be referenced in your Master List, including where these documents can be found.

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Other property deeds and leases

For vehicles, including cars, trucks, boats, and motorcycles, you should have the ownership or lease information set aside, and all of those documents should be referenced in your Master List. Next, find out the 8 revealing everyday documents you didn’t know you should shred.

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction; her first full-length manuscript, The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.