Judith Guertin, professional organizer and founder, All Ways Organized,
Your estate-planning documents won’t tell your heirs everything they need to know after you die or become incapacitated. You could save them time, money and frustration by providing some additional important information.
Helpful: Keep printed copies of the information below together with your estate-planning documents in a secure spot in your home, perhaps a safe or locked filing cabinet. Make sure one or more trusted relatives has the necessary keys or codes or knows where to find them. Don’t put this information in a bank safe-deposit box, which might not be easy for heirs to quickly access.
Recent copy of your credit report. Identity thieves target those who are recently deceased. They find potential victims in the obituary pages, then try to open credit cards or other accounts under those names. It can take months before a recently deceased person’s credit files are updated to note his/her death, and until that happens, the deceased are ideal identity-theft victims—after all, the dead don’t spot and report fraud.
To reduce this risk: Regularly obtain free copies of your credit reports from the three credit bureaus—TransUnion, Equifax and Experian. You can get a report from each once a year. I suggest getting one report every four months in rotation to meet the one-year requirement for each service and confirm that your information is updated every four months. Include the most recent of these reports with the info you leave for your spouse or trusted heirs. Your loved ones can use your credit report to determine which accounts were open during your life…and which suspiciously appeared around or after the date of your death or incapacitation.
List of your debts and recurring bills. In years past, surviving spouses and heirs could simply monitor a deceased or incapacitated loved one’s mailbox to spot bills. But many bills now arrive digitally and/or are paid automatically from bank or credit card accounts. Compiling a list of all your recurring bills and debts—everything from insurance policies to utilities to subscriptions—reduces the odds that an important bill will be overlooked or that the account that bills are automatically paid from will be closed without other payment arrangements being made. It also will help your loved ones quickly close any accounts that no longer are needed. If a recurring bill is paid automatically from one of your bank or credit card accounts, note this and specify which account it is paid from on this list. Two related steps worth taking…
Scan the cover page of each of your insurance policies, and attach these scans to your list of recurring bills. These cover pages typically provide a useful summary of the coverage, plus contact info for the insurer.
Warn family members who are authorized users of your credit cards not to use these cards after your death. Doing so could constitute fraud. Also let authorized users know that they likely are not responsible for paying any outstanding balances on these cards after your death—those payments should come out of your estate. But: If an account is jointly owned, the surviving account holder can legally continue using the cards but then also shares responsibility for paying the bills.
Details about money owed to you. If you’ve lent money to family members or friends, provide written details about each of these loans. Attach signed loan documents, if you have these, and/or a description of the agreed-upon repayment terms. Warning: Update these loan details every time the borrower pays back a portion of the money owed. Neglecting to do so could cause suspicion and strife among surviving family members when you’re no longer around to clarify the loan’s status.
Emergency access to your online accounts. At least one trusted friend or relative should have a way to get into your online accounts, including your social-media accounts, when you can no longer do so yourself. This person can update or close the accounts according to your preferences.
The simplest way to provide this access is to include a list of your account usernames and passwords among this paperwork, but there are other options…
Sign up for a password manager that includes an emergency-access feature. Password managers are online tools that store and secure login information, saving users the trouble of recalling and reentering those details. Many also include a feature that can supply account access to someone designated by the user under specific circumstances. Example: The password manager LastPass lets users designate one or more emergency contacts who have the right to request access if the user dies or becomes incapacitated. If this access is requested, LastPass will attempt to reach the original user and grant access only if that user fails to respond. A free version of LastPass is available, but emergency access is included only in the paid version, which starts at $3/month.
Use “digital legacy” tools, where available. Some online account providers now let users pre-set what they want to happen to their accounts if those accounts go inactive and/or an heir reports the user’s death and submits a death certificate. If offered, these tools likely will be found in the privacy or security section of the account’s settings menu.
Instructions to periodically check for missing money under your name. A state government could end up with your money after your death. When a financial account goes inactive—or a refund is due—and the company can’t reach the customer, that company must surrender the money to the state. This is especially common after people die—heirs and account executors sometimes overlook accounts.
Leave instructions for your heirs to periodically search for your name in the online missing-money databases maintained by any states where you have ever lived or done business. The easiest way for them to do this is through
MissingMoney.com. It isn’t sufficient to check once shortly after your death—it can take many months for money to end up listed here.
Pet-care instructions. If you have a pet, you should have a plan in place for who will care for the animal when you cannot. These arrangements should be hashed out well in advance with the friend or relative who will be caring for the pet, but also include the details with the paperwork you leave for your heirs. Note who has agreed to take care of the pet…how to contact that person…whether you have put money aside to cover the cost of the pet’s care…and potential backup caretakers if the first option falls through. Also provide details about the care the pet requires, including what and when the pet eats each day…a list of the pet’s medications, updated as necessary…contact info for the veterinarian…and details about where to find medicines, food, travel carrying case, vaccination forms and any other pet-related items in your home.
Your vital records…or instructions on where to find these. Your heirs might need your birth certificate, Medicare card, military ID card, Social Security number and other personal documents.
Your not-so-obvious valuables. Would your heirs know that there’s a rare coin in your coin collection…or that a piece of art on your wall is worth thousands? It’s very common for such things to get sold for a fraction of their worth at estate sales because heirs failed to understand what they had.
To avoid this: Compile a list of collectibles, art and jewelry that you know or suspect are valuable. Include descriptions…valuation estimates when possible…and/or explanations of why the item is potentially valuable—you might write “signed first edition” for a book, for example. Also note who you would like to inherit the item, if appropriate.
Access to frequent-flier and other membership accounts. Provide heirs with the passwords and usernames they’ll need to access your miles and points after you’re gone, assuming program rules permit such transfers.
Details about your funeral preferences and/or prepaid funeral arrangements. Families sometimes fail to realize that a parent has prepaid for a cemetery plot until after that parent has been buried elsewhere. Even though this isn’t an easy topic, discuss your funeral plans and preferences with your heirs, and let them know that they can find the details with your other key documents.