Don’t procrastinate — create an “In case of …” file today

A little over a week ago, my paternal grandmother had a stroke and sadly passed away a few nights later. She was 102 and had an awe-inspiring life, so mixed with our family’s sorrow was a celebration of a spectacular woman. Unfortunately, also among the sorrow and celebration was some stress.

Even though my grandmother had her proverbial “affairs in order” since the time she was 93 — burial plot purchased, funeral home under contract, ceremony officiant chosen, Last Will and Testament and estate papers organized and properly filed — there were still people to notify, a death certificate to be obtained and filed with numerous state and private entities, papers to sign, bills to be paid, a large family to gather, a funeral and meal to plan, and all of her belongings removed from her nursing home. She did as much as possible to alleviate her family’s anxiety by having as many details coordinated as she could, but some stress remained. I can’t imagine how chaotic the past 10 days would have been had she not been so well organized.

I know I wrote about it many times in August, but now seems like an extremely relevant moment to remind everyone to create an “In case of …” file. Being organized has many personal benefits, but having an “In case of …” file is the best way you can benefit the other people in your life. In fact, it may be the most important area of your life to have organized. Obviously, the hope is that none of your family and friends will have to look at this file until you are 102 or older. Just the same, make the file now. It is good to have the file in cases of illness or injury, not just in case of death, for others to help you carry out your responsibilities while you recover. You want to do as much as possible to relieve the stress on the people who care about you in case something awful does happen.

Articles to help you create an “In case of …” file:

40 Comments for “Don’t procrastinate — create an “In case of …” file today”

  1. posted by Tod on

    I’m not gonna waste one minute on that. Why would I care what they do with my stuff when I’m dead? I won’t be here.

  2. posted by Rachel on

    Erin, I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. I know from reading the posts on this site that you and your grandmother were close. My deepest sympathies.

    Thank you for the reminder that having things in order can go a long way toward helping our loved ones handle our affairs (and more easily figure out what to do with our “stuff”) during what can be an incredibly stressful time.

  3. posted by Rachel on

    @Tod – If you want to be a misanthrope, that’s your business, but in light of Erin’s recent experience, your comment was incredibly rude and shortsighted. Also, you missed the point of this post, which is that there are many other things to be handled when someone passes away besides what to do with their material possessions.

  4. posted by yliharma on

    @Tod: in one of the posts linked Erin said “This file is proof I love my family”.
    This is not something you should do for yourself, but for your loved ones, so that they won’t have to worry about those things while mourning your loss…

  5. posted by Alice F. on

    Erin, I’m so sorry for your loss, and thank you for this important reminder.

  6. posted by Amanda on

    @Tod – The point is not what *you* want done with your stuff, but the fact that other people are going to have to deal with it after you die. It’s not fair to your family/friends to leave them a mess to clean up.

  7. posted by *m* on

    I recently lost my father and he left very well organized behind — including a document of things to do “after.” It was a huge help to my mom and the rest of us during an absolutely terrible time. I will absolutely do the same.

  8. posted by Jackie on

    Thanks for this inspiring post. I will be adding this to my To Do list.
    We have finally got around to doing our wills…

  9. posted by Tod on

    If you reread my comment more existentially you’ll find it’s not misanthropic at all. Some people are into specifying the details of their funeral, the music to play, the church to use, that kind of thing. It just doesn’t interest me at all. My heirs can do whatever they want with my body and my assets and all that stuff. Doesn’t mean I’m short shrifting them by not making decisions today that I just don’t/won’t/can’t care about.

  10. posted by Joke on

    Erin, I can’t believe this! Every time you wrote about your grandmother I thought about my great-grandmother. She passed away a little over a week at 102 as well!
    We had a similar celebration of an amazing life this Saturday. I’m sorry to hear about your loss, but I’m hoping your grandmother and my great-grandmother will keep each other company 🙂

  11. posted by JustGail on

    Sorry about your grandmother, Erin.

  12. posted by Tim Gray on

    I have a thumb drive with all this including a text document of every website and the login and password for them. That way my wife can continue all our financial accounts on her own until she can get the banks and other places convinced that I have passed away.

    I update it monthly when I change my passwords.

  13. posted by Alix on

    I’m sorry for your loss, Erin.

    I know this sort of info organization is extremely important, but coming so soon after an entire *month* of “Just in case…” posts, I feel sometimes as though this blog should be called “Memento Mori” instead. Again, I am NOT knocking the importance of this type of thing, I’ve just never seen an organization blog that hits people over the head with this topic so much. Instead of uncluttering being a freeing, life-affirming exercise, here it often seems merely a means to catastrophe-preparedness and tidy final affairs. There are other web sites for that; sometimes I wish the tone on this blog were a little lighter.

    Just an opinion, no need to attack with torches and pitchforks…

  14. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Alix — You’ll notice that this blog tends to go in waves of topics. These topics reflect whatever is going on in my life — e.g. when I was moving in March, they all seemed to be about moving. In this specific case, since August, my grandmother has been ill, and my worries about her impending death were clearly reflected in my writing. My best friend from my elementary school days whom I’m still friends with was diagnosed in August with lung cancer. Another good friend of mine lost his 11 year old son this past weekend to bone cancer, after a very emotional two-year treatment process. One of my best friend’s sons is out of the woods now, but is still living in the hospital after a non-cancerous brain tumor ruptured right before his first birthday. And then, this past February, my aunt with whom I was very close to died of a brain tumor. Following all of these events, I’ve done a lot of thinking about my own mortality.

    However, I believe that thinking about one’s mortality IS at the very center of uncluttering. Life is short, even if you live to be 102, so why would you want to fill it with clutter and distractions? The whole purpose of this blog is to help people get rid of the things that get in the way of what truly matters. If you don’t focus on your mortality from time-to-time, you start to fill it and your space with things that don’t really matter to you.

    I don’t think your comment is rude or nasty or even that far off the mark. I agree that things have been a little dark around here lately. And, I thank you for saying it respectfully … why can’t all critical comments be like yours?

  15. posted by Amy on

    Please know that you, and your family, are in our hearts here in Georgia. Thank you for sharing your life with us.

  16. posted by Liz on

    So sorry for your loss, Erin. Sounds as though you were really close with your grandmother.

    And you are absolutely correct, it makes things so much easier for your family and friends left behind if even a few instructions are left for them. My remaining parent made arrangements for the memorial service desired shortly after the other parent had passed on. My siblings and I will not be in the dark trying to make arrangements while we are grieving, and I am grateful for that.

  17. posted by Jenny on


    If you don’t care what where your stuff goes/what is done at your funeral that’s fine. It might be nice to have that written down somewhere in the event of family drama. For me, I really don’t care what is done after I die but I want as little money spent on the funeral/coffin as possible because as I told my mom “I didn’t care about keeping up with the Jones when I was alive. Do you really think that aspect of my personality will change after I’m dead.” (My family tend to do very expensive over the top funerals and I what little money I have to go to charity/my family not be spent on something that is going into the ground and I will decay in.)

  18. posted by Sky on

    My deepest sympathy….Grandmothers are very special.

    Thanks for the reminder to finish my “in case of” file.

  19. posted by Alix on

    @ Erin:
    Wow, you *have* been through a ton of stuff recently… makes sense that all this would be reflected in your blog. Thanks for taking my comments in the spirit in which they were intended, and I hope you, your family and friends enjoy sunnier, healthier days ahead. 🙂

  20. posted by Lizzie on

    I’m currently working on getting every piece of paper sorted and filed and such. And I spent four hours yesterday dealing with things left by my dad, who died four years ago. He was quite prepared in many ways–for at least five years, one of the files on his desktop was called “George’s Obituary.” Funny, in a very dark way. I had a sad moment last night while filing check statements from my mom and dad’s joint account…an electric bill written in my dad’s writing then a check to a funeral home in mine.

    As Erin points out–you never know. In a worst case scenario, I hope to have my “in case of” file ready by the end of the year, and everything up to date. (No obit on my desktop, though.) And in a best case scenario, life will be much more pleasant once I never have to dig for anything!

  21. posted by Susan on

    Both my mother’s parents have died in the last 4 years & she did something that I thought was a great idea: she sent “death announcements” to all the people in their address book. She had something very short & simple yet formal printed up at a stationary store, i.e. “We regret to inform you that (person) died on (date).” It allowed their friends to express condolences & avoided awkward conversations with those who hadn’t yet heard the news. They had many friends from across the country & in other countries as well, so this worked very well for our family. Thanks for the post and so sorry to hear of your loss.

  22. posted by Gemmond on

    Condolences on the passing of your grandmother. And prayer and good wishes going out to you and your friends as they are faced with health and other challenges.

    And, bravo, Erin, for taking the time and energy to write about topics that others overlook–and that so many in real life avoid, often with terrible, terrible consequences for those they love. I, for one, don’t see this recent focus as being heavy but I respectfully understand where Alix is coming from. My suggestion about any blog is that if you are not interested in a topic, you just skip it.

    Erin writes:
    “If you don’t focus on your mortality from time-to-time, you start to fill it and your space with things that don’t really matter to you.”

    Our lives do become cluttered with people, activities and stuff that does not matter when we fail to take the time to really think about how we want to live, which means, also, how we want things to be handled when we die (and no, it’s not all about instructions for funerals, etc. and the disposition of property).

    It IS a gift to your family and friends to take responsibility, as much as anyone can, for what will come.

    A close friend has another close friend in her 40s who has cancer with an uncertain prognosis. She has two young children and is divorced. And after two years, she is just beginning to start this important process. It’s tough and emotionally challenging but she’s realizing that she just may not make it thru and even if she does, however, we all need to get our lives in order. Anyone can be gone an instant. You don’t need a diagnosis for a terminal illness to have the need to do these things.

    Your theme may be “organizing” but your blog is really about how to have a more joyful and authentic life and to enjoy it more fully. It’s about being mindful and present and not letting anything–people, spaces, clutter, events—get in the way of the life you wish to create.

    Thank you for sharing what you have been experiencing. It’s hard to talk in public about these things. In doing so, you have probably been the catalyst for a lot of people to get cracking and get organized on these things.

    If only one person (and we know there are many more) took action after reading your words, it was worth the time.

    So, thank you Erin. It’s tough to write of these things in general, but especially given the circumstances of your life at the moment.

  23. posted by Another Deb on

    So sorry to hear of your grandmother’s passing, Erin. She sounds like a person with a lot of life lessons to bestow and you have made use of those teachings.

  24. posted by Jodi on

    Erin, I have been so blessed by the smiles just reading about your grandmother brought to my life! Thank-you for sharing little glimpses of her with me through this website.

    I also must say that as soon as I read the title of this post I worried something had happened to your husband! It seemed…out of place (for lack of a better word) given the extensive discussions not too long ago.

    It doesn’t seem gloomy to me to discuss this, but in the last year and a half two friends had babies pass away, one friend lost her toddler in a tragic accident, a friend passed away, my sister-in-law passed away…for a few months it seemed everyone was dying, and watching/feeling the grief was overwhelming. Creating my In Case Of File felt pro-active, almost like I was cheating death, or getting the final say, or something.

    It also helped communication in my marriage by opening up discussions about what things are important now, and served as an amazing tool that redefined our home organizing philosophies and even life goals.

    If I live to be 102 I hope my life has been as rich as yout grandmothers was. Thank-you again for sharing that glimpse.

  25. posted by Jodi on

    My In Case Of File doesn’t say much about my stuff, but I do want my family to know where stuff is located, such as where to file for life insurance, and which bank has my savings account, otherwise that money is lost (or eventually given to Uncle Sam). Personally, my ICOF had a lot about finances and virtually nothing about my stuff.

  26. posted by Sue B on

    Dear Erin, my sympathies on the passing of your grandmother. 102 sounds like a grand life.

    I’ve read your ICOE posts and they have been part of the reason we are finally getting some of this together. A bigger reason is because in moving we misplaced the file with the birth certificates, SS cards and etc. I know it is in the garage… somewhere. So in the last few weeks we have gotten copies of those birth certificates, SSA cards, found the marriage license, copies of the insurance policies, credit cards and any other official paperwork I can lay my hands on. This week we get a bank box and it all goes there. I have scanned it all so we have copies on the computer. And last week I applied for a new passport and will get the husband and kids theirs soon also. Next comes the guardian thing for the kids and setting things up to care for them.

    The other reason we are (I am) doing all of this is that my uncle passed away this summer. At 62, four months after getting divorced. No kids. That means his only direct heirs are his two brothers, (my dad and uncle.) And Tod, Just as nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, no one expects to die at 62, only after a major life upheaval, before getting things worked out. So one cousin is taking charge of dealing with stuff. I live across the country and can’t help. Is there a bank safe box? I don’t know and neither does anyone else. So far everyone is being reasonable and that helps emmensely.

    Even if the only things you leave behind are a one room apartment with thrift store furniture and clothes, SOMEBODY has to spend hours cleaning it out and taking it to Goodwill or the dump. It helps a lot to know what to do with your stuff. And car, and paintings and books and 401K and IRA and etc etc etc.
    Be well Erin. Sorry to ramble on. And thanks for the help. Sue B

  27. posted by Celyn on

    Sorry for your loss. Right before i checked your site I was paying final bills for my Mom who passed away 4 weeks ago. She nor my Dad left me any instructions for end of life and financials. It has been a nightmare for two years since Dad’s passing and now a whole new one from my Mom’s passing. The best way to love your family and friends is to have an In Case File. Working on mine!

  28. posted by Cheryl on

    Dear Erin,
    I am new to your blog, but so far have found it very interesting and helpful. I want to offer my deepest sympathies for your loss. Indeed, your grandmother sounded like a spectacular woman and even at 102, no one is ever ready for a loved one to go.
    Reading your blog post today was very serendipitous. My father passed away last Friday and the memorial service was last night. He was ill with COPD for the last 9 years, with the last 2 or 3 the worst. He knew he was dying and talked constantly of getting things ready for his wife (my stepmother), but apparently he never actually did anything. These past few days were a haze as she, myself, my sister, her brothers, and several friends all worked to get his personal affairs in order. Writing the obituary, the biography, knowing his favorite songs, etc – all the things one must do after a death, were more difficult with us not knowing his wishes and some of the details he never shared with us. We knew he wanted to be cremated, but he never made his wishes known as to what he wanted done with the cremains – keep, inter, spread (and spread where?). There were so many questions as to what he would have wanted.
    I always felt I had my affairs somewhat in order for my loved ones, but after this weekend I realized how much I really need to do to get it all together and vowed I would. Reading your post and the links to the guidelines is exactly what I need right now. Great ideas and I have a plan to help me help my loved ones one day.
    I wish my Dad had done something like this. It really would have been a gift to his family and made things so much easier for his loved ones in such a trying time.
    Thanks again for the great information.

  29. posted by Jax on

    My sympathies go out to you in your loss, Erin. I have been reading of your grandmother and I smiled at her zest and lust for life.

    And your post does remind me of what we all have to face, and why there is arguments for getting things in order. If not for your own sake, then for the others around you.

  30. posted by Pammyfay on

    I’m sorry you’ve had (and are having) such a trying time, Erin.

    There are all sorts of pieces of info that my “next of kin” should know are out there “in the clouds” — from the password to my Shutterfly account (to get at the in-process photo books) to e-mail accounts’ passwords (so they can see that I’m still waiting for a back-ordered item from a retail website and they can call the place and cancel it), to my address book (there are folks in my past who might just want to know I’m dead when that time comes!).

    I’d want the next-of-kin to know, perhaps, that folks should not spend oodles of money on flower arrangements for my funeral. That they should instead bring some favorite children’s books so my family can wrap up my life by bringing smiles to the faces of young hospital patients. Wouldn’t you like to know that by putting things down on paper, your kin would not have to stress over guessing at what you would do?

    It’s really not just about material objects, I agree. Although, writing something down about what you want done with them can be a gift of freedom to the ones who have to take over when you’re done. I’d like to be able to tell the next of kin “Do not think you must keep this or that just because I always liked it — take what you want and give the rest away. Do not burden yourself, and don’t feel guilty.” (How many times have you read about situations where the eldest sibling was saddled with stuff from the parents and felt guilty even thinking about selling it?)

    I think that having this file really shows the ultimate form of respect. (And I have to update some of my info there!)

  31. posted by Allie on

    My deepest sympathies for your loss, Erin. We read your posts because you share helpful, insightful posts about how to live a less chaotic life surrounded by quality and not quantity. It may not be the most “sunny” read to be reminded that one should have an “in case of…” file but I’m grateful you have made the effort to share and remind us. My husband and I have two very small children, and I handle the vast majority of our finances (day to day banking, investments), bills, record keeping. If anything were to happen to me, my husband would be shattered PLUS have two wee children to care for PLUS have to take on my responsibilities. I’m making him a file just in case. Perhaps people should consider that “just in case” doesn’t always mean a death has occurred. If a person was incapacitated by accident or illness they COULD be around but be unable to perform their regular functions (car accident, stroke, etc etc). Then you probably would want those who love you to be at your bedside, not sifting through mountains of papers or lining up at the bank trying to figure out how to gain access and manage your affairs on your behalf.

  32. posted by Linda on

    Erin, my condolences on your loss. It seems no matter how long they live, we frequently wish for at least a little more time for our loved ones.

    In 1982 Northwestern National Bank’s (now Wells Fargo) home office in Minneapolis, a 17-story building, went up in a huge fire that still ranks as the largest insurance settlement of its kind. Six months earlier, they had completed an “in case of” plan for all their departments, one of the few existing for any bank in the country. The next day, first thing in the morning, they had people with “Bank Info” t-shirts handing out papers showing where to find a teller or a banker. They sold the plan to other banks, getting some return from the successful continuation of business. Now, when banks are audited, they have to provide their plans. Auditors check things out, right down to verifying the all-night t-shirt shop number listed.

    We don’t want to think about these things happening, but they do, and I certainly don’t want my family stumbling around through our finances and “stuff” without a clue as to where things are and how to carry on. While we don’t have a business, we do have our retirement accounts, life insurance, etc., and THINGS. I don’t want them tied up in knots trying to decide about THINGS, either–but we have to tell them that. Otherwise, they will keep (or feel guilty about letting go) a lot of THINGS out of some percieved loyalty. I, for one, am just glad that it is so easy with the tools we have. Evernote is a great place to store, since the information is off-site and accessible from anywhere. I can provide the link and the password, and they have what they need–thanks, Erin, for plugging this tool.

  33. posted by Christina Rodriguez | The Diva's Home on

    I am sorry for your loss. At the passing of each of my grandparents (and my grandmother’s second husband) they all had their affairs in order. Yes it was still stressful on the families because they still have to take care of some things, but it would have been crazy stressful if they hadn’t been prepared. I am grateful for my parents that theirs were ready ‘in case of…’ We are trying to help my father-in-law with that now. It is difficult because none of his children are really close to him (for many reasons in the past) but he wants to make things easier for them when he passes.

  34. posted by Imogene on

    This is about more than just preparing for death — your own or that of a loved one.

    It’s about being prepared “in case of…”

    Earthquake, fire, flood, sudden illness, unexpected accident, a plunge in the stock market, or a visit from Mayhem — just like in the insurance commercials.

    I live in the San Francisco bay area and we’re always being reminded to have a plan in case of an earthquake. Thank God, we haven’t had to deal with that yet, but I know two men, both in their forties, whose excrutiating headaches turned out to be the precursor for debilitating, life-changing strokes. Their lives and the lives of their young families literally changed in a matter of hours. Everyone knows someone who has been touched by such life-altering disasters.

    Before I go on trip I make sure my house is nice and clean so that when I arrived home exhausted I open the door on order, not chaos. I call this a gift to myself. And I’m looking at preparing my “in case of…” file the same way — as a gift to my future self.

    Erin, I’m so sorry for your loss. And I’m so grateful for your reminder to get my ducks in a row.

  35. posted by Jackie Pettus on

    Hi, Erin:

    You really have been through a lot lately. But as you so nicely demonstrate on “Unclutterer,” sad or bad events are often important learning experiences.

    The people who comment “I don’t care…I will be dead” probably haven’t had to deal with the details while mourning the death of a loved one. After you’re gone, do you want your loved ones to be thinking fondly of you or resenting the mess you left behind for them to clean up?

    And keeping your information up-to-date and accessible isn’t just important in case of death. You could have a stroke or be in a car accident, unable to make decisions or communicate wishes or details to others.

    Household and personal record keeping software is available to help you organize and gather important information.

    If you can’t get motivated to do it “just in case,” consider how handy it would be to have all of that information printed and kept desk-side for your own day-to-day use.

  36. posted by George P.H. on

    Wow, this is actually a great idea. When my grandfather passed away a few years ago, the following weeks were a lot less stressful because he’d sorted everything out in advance, with help from my uncle. I can’t imagine how bad things could’ve been if we also had to deal with a million little papers and procedures.

    On a more personal note, I want to leave my “last message” in my “in case of” package. You know.. last words of comfort, hope and love to my friends and family. You never know what might happen; I want to set things right with everyone one last time if I’m suddenly gone one day.

    Thank you, Erin.


  37. posted by Max Leibman on

    Erin, I’m very sorry for you lost.

    @Tod, even if you’re not particular about what becomes of what you leave behind, you’ll be taking a burden from other people.

    Moreover, there are other benefits of getting such details arranged in the here-and-now, including clarity on what you have and what it’s current and likely future disposition will be, to say nothing of peace of mind; these accrue not to those left behind but to you, and not in the future but in the now. As Ambrose Bierce put it, “Before undergoing a surgical operation arrange your temporal affairs. You may live.”

  38. posted by Julie on

    Sorry to hear of your loss, but i’m so glad you thought to create this post. I recently had the realization that i’ve always assumed that if something horrible happened, that it would only happen to one of us. However, if something did happened to both of us, there would be a LOT for our families to figure out, esp because we handle so many of our bills & investments online.

    This realization prompted us to finish our wills (we have 2 young children, so this is especially important), buy a safe for all of our important paperwork (i.e. birth certificates, sss cards, passports, etc… ), and to create an emergency info binder, which is basically an cheat sheet to our lives. I’ve listed every bank account, credit card, insurance policy, loan, etc… that i could think of. As well as anything that is automatically drawn from our accounts, along with phone numbers & contacts (like our family doctor, dentist, etc… ).

    Obviously, this is information we wouldn’t want to have in the wrong hands, but locked up in our safe, it makes me feel as though we’ve at least attempted to ease the burden on our families.

  39. posted by how to organize home on

    wow, that is a great closet!

  40. posted by Elizabeth on

    Thank you, Erin, for continuing to remind us about the importance of creating an in-case-of file.

    May I add a suggestion? I recently had to visit and care for my sister who lives way out in the middle of nowhere (with no cell phone coverage). I needed to drive from her house to her doctor’s, her pharmacy, her childrens’ schools, their sports activities, etc. She painstakingly wrote names and driving instructions for each of these places on notebook paper…and then when I was done with that day’s errands, she threw the instructions away. It suddenly dawned on me—why not create a notebook of these papers? Others will need the same instructions one day, and god forbid, my sister might not be able to provide the same level of detail.

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