Creating an “In case of …” file

My resolution for the month of August is to get my “In case of …” file updated. It’s not a difficult task in terms of time and skill, but it is difficult to muster up the motivation to want to work on it. I don’t particularly enjoy thinking about my mortality, and creating an “In case of …” file makes me do exactly that.

To get me through the process, I’ve been repeating the phrase:

This file is proof I love my family.

I have been updating a few contacts and pieces of information each day in the file to keep the load light. Last week, though, I realized that there was one major flaw with my file — it assumes my husband is the one reading it. Obviously, if something were to happen to me, I would hope my husband would be the one to go through the file. Since I spend close to 24 hours a day with my husband, however, there is a better than decent chance that if something happens to me that it will likely happen to him, too. (Again, not a thought I really want to have, but I am trying to be mature and responsible.)

In addition to updating my current file, I realized I need to make a second file to seal up and give to someone else — like my lawyer or parents or both. If something awful were to happen to both my husband and me, I most certainly would want there to be an “In case of …” file appropriate for someone other than my spouse to read. The information in this second file will need to be more precise, and include specific details I don’t have to explain to my husband since he knows so many details about my life.

Let me be clear, this information I’m collecting for the “In case of …” file is in addition to a Last Will and Testament. These files aren’t about asset distribution or anything of massive importance. The contents of these files are things like the Netflix account cancellation information and the telephone numbers for my alumni associations. If something awful were to happen, I don’t want the people in my life to be stressed trying to take care of the little details.

If you haven’t created this type of file before, start by paying attention to the mail you receive, the calls you make, and the bills you pay. Do you receive any magazine subscriptions? Do you get any newsletters? Do you make donations to charities? Who is your daughter’s violin teacher? Are you a member of any clubs? What company picks up your trash? Do you use a snow removal service? Are you part of a CSA delivery? Do you deliver meals to the elderly once a week? It might take you a month to collect a valuable set of data, but it’s definitely worth it.

Another strategy to consider when making these lists is to pretend to be a stranger trying to take over your life. What would this person have to learn and understand to succeed?

The final point I want to make about all of this is protecting this information. You do not want this file to end up in the wrong hands, so be extremely careful with it. Storing the document in a waterproof safe that is bolted to the floor is an excellent idea. Hiding it under a false name in a filing cabinet, but giving the file name to a few trusted loved ones might even be all it takes (criminals tend to look for paper files like “Passwords” and “Vital Docs,” not “Cat Vet Bills — Paid”). Criminals also tend to take entire laptops and computers instead of specific files, so intensely password protect and encrypt any data files you may store on your computer. And, as someone who had her files stolen in a very bizarre case of corporate espionage more than a decade ago, I can personally attest to your office NOT being a good place to store personal documents.

Do you have an “In case of …” file put together yet? What is keeping you from putting one together? Do you need to create two — one for your significant other and one for someone you trust completely, but who lives outside your home?

25 Comments for “Creating an “In case of …” file”

  1. posted by Jenna @ NeatFreakWannabe on

    I think we all should have two copies, one to keep at our home, and one somewhere else, whether that is with a family member, friend, lawyer, or safe deposit box.

    This is something I need to do. I’ve been prioritizing other, larger organization projects over this, so it just hasn’t come up in the queue yet. If I’m not able to get to this in 2011, it will be the first thing I work on in 2012.

  2. posted by Val on

    I have not made one yet, but have been considering it for years. I have been reluctant to do it because the idea of my family needing it is kind of scary to me.

    One of the things I know that I would add to me file would be log in details for some of the sites I go to a lot. I have friends on there that I would rather know what happened than just wonder. By giving the information to whoever I gave the file to they would at least have the ability to inform these people about my passing.

  3. posted by Jay on

    I have yet to create an “in case of” file but hope to do one soon. My main concern is that I want my survivors to be able to find all my assets, few though they may be.

    As a start, I anticipate emailing to my brother and father (1) the banks and brokerages where I have my accounts, 401(k)s, etc., and the last four digits of the accounts; (2) the names of any insurers and the last four digits of the policies; and (3) the location of safe deposit boxes and their keys (and that car and house deeds/titles are in the box).

  4. posted by Jackie on

    I think I don´t need to have a file like this because I have nothing!! ;D

  5. posted by hmr on

    Erin, please follow up on this topic at the end of the month or later in the year. I’d love to know what surprises you came across and how long it took you to complete the project. Also, I’d be curious as to the final design of the information. A binder? A CD? How did you delineate the topics? What changed as you continued working with the info?

    I should probably start on this now while it’s just me and the two cats. It must be easier to do when there’s fewer people involved.

  6. posted by luxcat on

    please remember if you choose to put documents in a safety deposit box that in many USA states unless the person who needs to access is is a CO RENTER not just a signatory on the box, they may NOT be able to access the box after your death until after probate! This even means your spouse! so always keep a copy of key info someplace else as well…

  7. posted by Nana on

    Since I’m old and keep things on paper, I’ve sent my older daughter / executor things like the insurance papers for my house (not a good thing to keep in my house if it burns down) as well as other details. Sometimes I just hand her the document, sometimes it’s sealed and it’s for my file. And yes, it does include ‘who to notify’

  8. posted by Emilie on

    It’s a really good idea that I’ve been vaguely thinking about lately. As soon as my life gets in better order I will put it on my to-do list. I’d feel much more comfortable knowing everything is in order. That also includes what I want people to do with my computer files and various Internet accounts…

    I almost never comment but I want to say, thank you for this website! I read every post.

  9. posted by Rae on

    This post reminded me that I really need to update my ‘in case of’ folder now that I have a lot more clients.

    I recently took over the management of an apartment complex and the other day an elderly tenant came to the office with some “in case I drop dead in my apartment” (her words) instructions, all neatly laid out and typed: who to call, who to *not* let into the apartment, where to forward her mail, and more.

  10. posted by Dorothy on

    I am fairly recently-widowed, have no children, and recently re-located to a new state.

    I asked my mother-in-law to be my executor. She, my sister and several close friends know that THE LIST is a red fabric portfolio, marked “In Case of my Death”, stored in my freezer. It’s got all the account numbers and contacts. Also, I’m a quilter, so I’ve arranged for DMIL to call one of my quilting friends who will come clear out my studio and dispose of its contents.

    The “red bag” works. I was recently in a fairly serious car accident. One of my friends stopped at my house and picked up the “red bag” on her way to the hospital since she thought we might need my powers of attorney.

  11. posted by Tiffany on

    I found this form to be really helpful for organizing documents ‘just in case’:

  12. posted by chacha1 on

    I don’t have this done yet. It has just been repeatedly pushed down the to-do list by other stuff that seemed more important/urgent (and might well have been). No excuse.

  13. posted by Mletta on

    Great post, Erin. Hope it helps folks get over their queasiness about addressing the issues of being incapacitated (death is NOT the ultimate problem) or dying.

    I created my own “personal briefing book” (hard copy, scanned copies and one kept in the apartment, the other with two friends –don’t trust banks to have access and there are other issues about quick access.)

    I’ve already done a will and power of attorney for healthcare and finances (YOU must do these, too, otherwise, a lot of the other information you leave is just about access. But folks WON’T have access without written authority.)

    I’m single and when I did this, people were like: Are you ill? No. I’m just not a kid, live alone, have only one family member who is MIA (and who knows next to nothing about my life and is fiscally and emotionally irresponsible) and don’t want to make it any more difficult than it already is for my friends who will have to deal with stuff when I’m gone–or can’t handle stuff myself.

    Just as you noted, I thought about daily access and habits (for filing, etc.). The biggest thing is having access to my many online accounts. (And being able to easily understand how I keep things on my computer so you can find them. I have great friends, but only one is really computer-savvy and online savvy.) I left detailed notes on this and a list of files where things can be found.

    There is a list of passwords to accounts along with account sign-in information(including the security questions they ask at times) and all other account information.

    I’ve listed all the items that are automatically debited each month from a credit card (web hosting, newspaper, etc.) along with information on my Quicken files to access other needed financial payment data (historical).

    If you have anything (credit cards, etc. ) on auto-payment, you must give someone that information so they can act ASAP. (Again, there will be different issues if you are temporarily incapacitated, long-term incapacitation, or death.) The last thing you want is hundreds or thousands of dollars in charges on your account (and do not think that they will be discharged even if you die; they won’t as we found out with my mother).

    You should also go to your bank and ask that certain individuals be given access to your accounts, as needed (beyond someone with financial power of attorney). This can be simple or complicated depending on type of account (business, personal, joint) you have and the bank itself. And there are reasons that you’ll need others to be able to do this beyond the one person with power of financial attorney for you.

    NEVER assume your life partner, spouse, or family member will just be able to access ANYTHING and act on it. (I had to go thru hell with Verizon to have service turned off when my mother died. And I had power of attorney, proof of death, etc. )

    Also, keep in mind, if you were in an accident or had a stroke and could not communicate. You want all the information anyone else would need to literally “replace” you in handling your life.

    All of this takes time. But if you are truly concerned about family and loved ones, every adult will have one of these.

    I modeled my briefing book after those I created in corporate environments (Top execs have these for both personal and professional lives).

    Don’t forget to include information such as SS numbers, date of birth (location), your parents names. (You’d be surprised how much you will need all of this information.)

    I made copies of all my credit cards (front and back, you need the three-digit number on back), noted how to access online; customer service numbers, etc.

    I did the same for each and every online and real-world account (banks, newspaper, electricity, airline mileage accounts, domain name registration, etc.)

    I live in an apartment, so information on the super, type of building, who rent is paid to and when, etc was included. A list of who has keys for access to my apartment is also listed. In a house, you’d want to list any/all folks who provide services, what the provide and when and contact info.

    The numbers and address of the local post office that delivers to my building; con ed phone numbers and account information and cable information are also noted for quick and easy access.

    There is also a list of close family and friends and ALL contact information for them (cell, email, etc.) for easy access. (Again, never assume someone can find all the names they need quickly and easily. What if they can’t find your cell phone? Today, most people keep their lives on them, but what it they are lost or stolen or misplaced? YOu need backup data that can be access locally and long distance.)

    This list is particularly important because without it (or an address book that is accessible), folks will not be able to contact anyone. (When our mother died, we could not even notify some of her friends because she kept no list and we lived out of town so had no idea how to find them. Hence, we could not even invite them to a service. This could easily happen to you, as well.)

    If you use social media, include that access information.

    If you have children, you need to include all relevant information (doctors, schools, babysitters, lessons, etc.)

    When I was done with all of this, I felt a tremendous feeling of satisfaction. No, we can’t anticipate everything. And yes, we will have to rely on the goodwill and intelligence of others to act on our behalf, but making it easier for them is all that we can do.

    Thanks for bringing up this important topic. THere is nothing worse than someone who thinks: Well, I’m gone. It’s not my problem.

  14. posted by Karen Newbie on

    When my mother passed in 2003 I found books and books of expenses – an entry for every day – that she’d conpiled since 1960 (when she and my father were married) but found next to no information about accounts, whom to contact, etc. I found on the kitchen table a receipt for a piece of jewelry she had taken to sell at jewelry store 3 towns away. I almost threw the receipt away because I knew nothing about her jewelry nor this store. When I went to retrieve the piece, it turned out it was a multi-diamond cross worth over $1,000.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the post and the comments that suggest what types of information you should compile and leave in a “just in case” file or binder. We should be just as diligent at getting rid of the things that no one else should have to go through on our behalf (such as the expense records from 40 years prior).

    That’s why I love this blog and the comments posted here – we’re all trying to unclutter our lives for ourselves and those we leave behind (eventually).

  15. posted by Another Deb on

    I hate to tell you this, but storing valuables in your freezer is not foolproof. I had a burglary where the person stole meat and beer from the fridge and three boxes of tofu hot dogs from the freezer. No, they didn’t just look inside, they took the tofu! I am still kind of laughing about a person risking prison for tofu…. At any rate, a storage system in the freezer is still a target.

  16. posted by Fiona on

    This would be a great file to have if you have to evacuate your house as well.

    Having lived through the earthquakes in New Zealand one thing that we have found vital is phone lists. In particular for my family to have the phone numbers of my husbands family. We have found in the earthquakes you often cannot make phone calls within the city but can make them outside of the city. It is important that if you only get one phone call throug, the person receiving it can pass on messages to others. This is also important for your friends as well.

    Also review who has permission to pick your children up from school and make sure their contact details are included on the list.

  17. posted by evelyn Cucchiara on

    A great idea that should probably be implemented before any other organizing idea! After all, which is more important – your closet looks good or you have a file to grab in an emergency?

  18. posted by Sue on

    Thank you for this great reminder – I NEED to do this! I NEED to do this!

  19. posted by Living the Balanced Life on

    This personally hits home. My husband suffered a brain aneurysm almost 3 years ago. Thank goodness he survived and has not real lasting complications. I will NEVER forget though, as he is being wheeled out to the ambulance, him pulling me close and whispering to me the combination of our safe.
    We make sure that each knows what the other needs to know now.
    Great post, somber but great info.

  20. posted by Jackie Pettus on

    Nobody enjoys thinking about their mortality. And it is hard to get motivated to create an “In case of…” file. But once you’ve done it you realize it isn’t merely “just in case.” Kept desk-side, your records contain information you and your family will find useful on a day-to-day basis while you’re alive!

    Early in my marriage (pre-computers!), I bought a little book called “What My Family Should Know.” We filled it in by hand. Eventually, as insurance policies, bank accounts, etc., changed it became so “crossed out” it was unusable.

    That little book became the inspiration for “Matters of Fact,” the household record keeping software I developed. It’s a guide to what information to keep as well as a repository. “Matters of Fact” includes the obvious categories – birth info, financial accounts, memberships, insurance, etc.. But it also includes things you might not think of, like the location of a rented storage space, what’s in it and where to find the keys.

    “Matters of Fact” can be printed for desk-side reference or to give to a lawyer or loved one. The master document is encrypted, password protected and stored on ultra-secure servers “in the cloud” where it’s protected from fire, natural disasters, computer problems or theft. You can access your data from home, the office or while abroad via any device with internet access. You can share it with your spouse, which means they can share responsibility for entering the data and keeping it up to date.

    One safe place for everything. No freezers, erasers or different versions required. You can preview “Matters of Fact” at (

  21. posted by Amanda on

    This is a really great post. My grandfather passed away two months ago, and my family is still trying to settle everything. He had a last will and testament, but there was absolutely no documentation for anything else. We couldn’t check his phone messages because there was a password that nobody knew; there was no record of all the pharmacies he used; he had over 3,000 unread email messages and no record of which correspondents needed to be notified of his death; etc. It was a tremendous hassle for my family to be grieving our loss and at the same time trying to figure out how to get all his affairs in order. Everyone should have a “Just in Case” list!

  22. posted by Helen on

    I keep a “to do death list” file on my computer which is emailed to my daughter whenever I travel or major changes to the list are made. My daughter was initially troubled by this list, but now is aware that such a “to do” list is necessary.

    Who to notify of my death or illness – a list of names, addresses, telephone numbers of family, friends, volunteer organizations and any association of which I am a member.

    Everything to do with my home, such as who plows the drive in winter, what days the garbage is collected, which cable company, which appliance repair company, how to stop the faucets from freezing in winter etc.

    Any thing to do with my health is listed – doctors, dentist, insurance companies.

    How to find medical appointments in my calendar so that they can be cancelled.

    All financial stuff is listed – bank, broker, accountant.

    Lawyer is listed. Location of will is listed. Safe deposit box info.

    How to cancel newspapers, magazines, cable, mail, library card, handicap pass.

    What to do in my home – clear out refrigerators and freezer, how to dispose of furniture, clothing and food (this is a list of charities), suggestions for disposing of cars, gardening stuff, and household items. What to with my crafting supplies, books etc. All the practical stuff is listed.

    Insurance – what to keep and what not to keep until estate is settled.

    Travel information – where to locate my next trip information, and how to cancel reservations.

    I have listed suggestions on how to dispose of my books, jewelry and personal items such as my six hundred Christmas tree ornaments!

    My list was started in the hope that any info my children needed due to my illness or death, would be readily available to them.


  23. posted by HelenH on

    The first thing on my list is a record of all the automatic payments that come out of the checking account. I listed the company name (e.g. electric company), the customer service telephone number, and our account number. Settling an estate can take months and you don’t want monthly charges to continue unnoticed. Now with so many online transactions, I had to rethink how we handle bills and how “hidden” this can be. It’s one thing to get a bill in the mail; it’s another to get an email!

  24. posted by Jenny on

    WOW..what timing! I have a few weeks before our first baby is born and this is SUCH a helpful thing to get into place before she arrives. I’ve also sent this to my family to encourage them to do the same. Thank you!!

  25. posted by lola on

    Another item to attend to…taking your name off the voter registration list. I am an election official and it is common to have many names on the register that are deceased.

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