So what are these essential documents that you should have well organized and accessible? Individual circumstances vary, but the first document for most people is an original will. Dying without a will means leaving the determination up to the state as to how your assets will be distributed, and if there is some writing, but not an original document, probate proceedings could become needlessly contentious and drawn out.
In addition to a will (and any trust documents), what follows is a nonexhaustive, but reasonably comprehensive, list of other important documents, the existence and location of which should be known to your heirs:
- Marriage license—A surviving spouse is likely to need it to prove that he or she was married to the deceased before being able to claim anything based on the marriage;
- Divorce papers;
- Durable health‑care power of attorney (for health‑care decisions if you are incapacitated), a living will, any do‑not‑resuscitate order, and an authorization to release health‑care information;
- Durable financial power of attorney (for financial decisions if you are incapacitated);
- Documentation of ownership of property, including housing, land, cemetery plots, vehicles, stocks, bonds, etc.;
- Proof of loans made and debts owed;
- List of bank and brokerage accounts, with account numbers, and any safe‑deposit boxes with the location of corresponding keys;
- Tax returns for the most recent three years;
- Life insurance policies and 401(k), pension, annuity, and IRA documents; and
- List of user names and passwords for Internet accounts.
With a little bit of foresight and planning, you can greatly reduce the administrative burden on your family and heirs after you pass.