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A Will is Not Enough: 25 Documents You Need Before You Go

Let’s face it, planning for our own mortality can be uncomfortable and hard.

Let’s face it, planning for our own mortality can be uncomfortable and hard. No matter what our circumstances or background, we all share some level of discomfort around death and therefore often avoid end-of-life planning at all costs. Even though end-of-life planning is the greatest gift you can give to your family, it can be overwhelming to know how and where to start.

More than a decade ago, the Wall Street Journal published an article detailing “The 25 Documents You Need Before You Die,” a wonderful reference to help as you get started. However, just as your life and circumstances are ever-changing, so should be your approach to compiling this list.

Many things have changed over the last decade. You have a larger online presence than you might think and as you make plans to protect your physical property and assets, it is also wise to consider your digital footprint.

With this in mind, here is the list with a few updates to best help you prepare for your family and protect your legacy:

1. Last Will and Testament

Your will is the document that determines who will inherit any of your assets if there is no joint ownership, or beneficiaries not filed at an institution

2. Financial Power of Attorney (POA)

A POA allows you to designate someone to handle your finances if you are unable to do so.

3. Advance Health Care Directive

An Advance Care Directive is a combination of your Living Will (how you want to be treated in certain medical circumstances) and the naming of a Health Care Proxy/Power of Attorney (authority to make medical decisions for you).

4. Do Not Resuscitate Orders (DNR) 

If a DNR is part of your wishes, make sure to include it with your paperwork.

5. Personal and Family Medical History

Make sure to include your list of medications.

6. HIPAA Authorization

A HIPAA authorization is needed to express your permission to release protected health information about you to designated parties. HIPPA stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.

7. Housing, Land, Cemetery Deeds

8. Escrow Mortgage Accounts

9. Proof of Loans Made and Debts Owed

10. Vehicle Titles

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11. Stock Certificates, Savings Bonds, Brokerage Accounts

12. Partnership and Corporate Operating Agreements

13. Tax Returns: 6 Years From Filing Date

14. A Letter of Instruction

A letter to convey requests and important information, such as where you want your ashes scattered or how you want your funeral or memorial service to be performed.

15. A List of Passwords and Digital Accounts

Help your loved ones access your accounts as well as the unlock code to your phone and password to your computer, laptop and/or external hard drive.

16. A Digital Estate Plan

A Digital Estate Plan should include how you want your social media accounts to be handled after you’re gone as well as the name of who will carry out your wishes (also known as a Digital Executor).

17. List of Safe-Deposit Boxes

Don’t forget to let loved ones know where the keys are located.

18. Life Insurance Policies

19. Retirement Accounts

Individual Retirement Accounts and/or 401(k) Account Information.

20. Pension Documents

21. Annuity Contracts

22. Marriage License

23. Divorce Papers

24. A list of Important Contacts

Include a detailed list with phone numbers, email addresses, etc.

25. A Legacy Letter or Ethical Will

A Legacy Letter or Ethical Will may include your personal or family history/stories, beliefs, values, and life lessons for future generations. 

Once completed, please make sure your family knows these documents and wishes exist and how they can access them. 

Here are more tips to help optimize your document do-gooding: 

  • Sharing is caring: Schedule a family meeting, Zoom, or phone call to share where these documents are located and how to access them. 
  • Capture, store, and secure updated information, especially usernames and passwords. 
  • Consider using a password manager or secure online vault storage to capture and share information. 
  • Be transparent: Your end-of-life plans and wishes may affect family members differently and/or may differ from their expectations. 
  • Keep notes along the way to capture things you’re unsure about or that you may need to revisit. 
  • Consult an estate attorney. 
  • Keep in mind, all of this information can be stored in an online account.

Give yourself time, patience and space to complete this list, celebrating progress along the way. While this preparation is no small feat, your end-of-life planning will serve as the greatest gift you give your family by preventing confusion and anguish, protecting your legacy, and allowing you to live your life unburdened today.

Rachel Donnelly is the founder and CEO of AfterLight, an after loss and end-of-life consulting firm.

Disclaimer: This isn’t legal advice, and shouldn’t be taken as such. Before drafting a will, consult a lawyer or legal service.

This article first appeared on Lantern and is used by permission.

The next of kin needs access to most (if not all) of the documents on this list. To learn more about the role a next of kin plays, take a look at our article Beyond Blood Ties: Understanding Who Qualifies as "Next of Kin".