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The Essential Documents to Keep Organized as You Age

Just thinking about essential “paperwork” and documents can cause anxiety and stress. You either feel like you haven’t save what you need or you have 27 shoeboxes full and can’t find anything.

There is a happy middle ground, and getting your affairs in order – including all that paperwork – isn’t as hard as you think.  We’ve created a must have list for you.

Important Estate Planning Legal Documents

Estate planning is important because it allows you to spell out exactly what will be done with everything you own – from real estate to cash to personal possessions. Here’s a list of the estate planning documents you should keep together:

  • Power of Attorney – who can make financial decisions on your behalf if you aren’t able to.
  • Last Will and Testament – your instructions for what family, friends, charities, organizations, etc. will receive upon your passing. This can be very detailed or more general, but it’s the overall assignment of your possessions.
  • Life Insurance Policies – create a list of all your insurance policies including life, health, long-term care, home, and auto and make sure beneficiaries have been assigned if needed.
  • End of Life Instructions – if you have a preference on funeral, memorial, or burial services, you should include them in these instructions so the proper arrangements can be made.

Estate planning will serve important functions for surviving family and friends making handling taxes, legal fees, and any disputes much simpler. Be sure to provide access to those named in your documents and to make them aware of their role.  This is particularly important should an emergency arise.

Important Medical Documents

In the event of a medical emergency or unexpected event, having organized and easy to follow medical documents can make crucial medical decisions much easier. Without them, medical records could be withheld or services delayed. Consider creating a folder with the following documents:

  • Medical Proxy/Power of Attorney for Health Care – a power of attorney for health care document assigns a “medical proxy” to make medical decisions if you are unable. 
  • Living Will – these documents tell physicians to withhold predetermined life-saving treatments if a patient’s condition is considered terminal or irreversible.
  • Authorization to Release Medical Records – the Health Insurance Protection and Portability Act (HIPPA) prohibits doctors from releasing medical information without a patient’s expressed consent; an authorization to release medical records form ensures that physicians can talk to family members about medical condition and provide health updates.
  • Out-of-Hospital Do Not Resuscitate Order (OOHDNR) – this document signals to emergency responders and non-hospital medical providers that you wish to forgo certain life-saving procedures such as CPR, breathing tubes, and artificial ventilation.
  • Personal Medical History – having a list of medical conditions, medications, and allergies helps healthcare providers make faster decisions in the event of a medical emergency.
  • Long-term Care Plan and Insurance Policy – these help family members plan for the next steps, whether assisted living or long-term residential rehabilitation and therapy after a medical event.

Some or most of these documents may already exist, but it’s important to make sure they are complete and that family members have copies of them so they can review them and ask any questions.

Important Financial Documents

This can be quite a list and often times it’s referred to as a “records inventory”. Not knowing or having access to some or all of this information can often make it very difficult for family members or accountants/lawyers to handle your affairs should you become incapacitated. Please include user names and passwords for online digital accounts.

  • List of Bank Accounts – make a list of all active bank accounts and lines of credit; this makes it easy for a power of attorney to transfer funds and pay bills if the need suddenly arises.
  • Tax Returns – these may be needed to determine eligibility for government benefits for long-term care or housing assistance. Keep tax returns from the previous seven years as advised by the IRS.
  • Retirement Planning Documents – this can include any pensions, 401ks, IRAs, etc. that might be needed to verify income, designate beneficiaries, or make financial arrangements in the event of sudden death.
  • Brokerage and Securities Accounts – documentation of all stocks and bonds holdings are needed to provide a complete accounting of assets and take necessary steps to transfer assets upon death; in some states, you can add a “transfer-on-death” designation to brokerage accounts.
  • Business Operating Agreements – if you have an LLC or partnership, this will allow family members to resolve questions about ownership, assets, or obligations for the business.
  • Property Deeds and Titles – these are needed to sell or transfer ownership of property.
  • Loans and Debts – having a list of all your obligations will make it easier for family members to pay any monthly payments or debts should you become unable to do so yourself and prevent them from going to collections.

Getting access to financial documents can be a daunting task that’s often lengthy and expensive. Family members may be unaware of certain accounts and even simple tasks like paying a mortgage or car payment can be difficult and costly without key financial documents and information.

Personal Documents for Seniors

Most people keep these important documents together but letting family members know where to find them is critical. Gathering these personal documents before they’re needed saves time and energy:

  • Birth certificate
  • Marriage/divorce records
  • Military records
  • Driver’s license and/or passport
  • Social Security card

Store these personal documents in a safe, secure place that at least one family member is aware of and has easy access to.

Planning ahead and staying organized can help avoid added costs, time, and stress in already difficult situation. Many people already have some of these legal documents assembled in a safe place, but they can only be used if family members know where to find them. If you feel overwhelmed or don’t know where to start, consider asking a family member to help or consult an estate planning attorney.

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