In case of …

No one enjoys thinking about the macabre. But, as Benjamin Franklin so accurately posited in a 1789 letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, “… in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

On Unclutterer, we’ve certainly glossed over the death topic. The truth is that we don’t enjoy thinking about it either. However, if you’re going to take the time to get your life organized, you would be remiss to ignore that there will be a point where you’re no longer here and others will need to find important documents and information to close your estate.

We call these our “In case of …” files. In mine, I include things like contact information for employees, server details, and passwords, and a key to my fire-proof safe where I store my Will and a copy of my birth certificate. The idea is that if something does happen to me, I want things to be easier on my close family and friends who are mourning. I’d rather them have good thoughts of me after my passing, not angry thoughts because they searched for hours trying to find my life insurance policy to pay for the funeral.

If you’ve never put together an “In case of …” file, the best place to start is by visiting a lawyer to draft your Last Will and Testament. This document will include answers to all of the big questions: custody of children, property disbursements, where you want to be buried, etc. After you have this document created, you’ll then need to pass along the name of your lawyer to at least two different people — someone who lives near you (spouse, partner, close friend) and someone who lives in a different part of the country or world — and then store this document safely (such as in a UL 350 fireproof safe).

The rest of your “In case of …” file will be up to you in terms of its contents. Are there people who would need to be contacted at your job? Are you the primary care provider for a child, sibling, or parent who may need to receive immediate attention before the reading of your Will? Do you have bills that have to be paid? Look at your life and identify all of the places that could be stressful for someone to handle if you weren’t there to help. Now, provide information on those issues and put it in your “In case of …” file. It won’t be a fun process while you collect the information, but afterward you’ll have a peace of mind that things will be okay in case something happens.


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

29 Comments for “In case of …”

  1. posted by Robbin on

    A reminder not to put emergency papers in your safe deposit box – depending on state laws, these are sometimes sealed upon death, even for a shared box.


    OK, what should NOT go in a safe deposit box?
    Anything you might need in an emergency, in case your bank is closed for the night, the weekend or a holiday. Possible examples: originals of a “power of attorney” (your written authorization for another person to transact business on your behalf), passports (in case of an emergency trip), medical-care directives if you become ill and incapacitated, and funeral or burial instructions you make. Consider giving the originals to your attorney, and making copies to go in your safe deposit box or to give a close friend or relative.

  2. posted by Christie on

    I do Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover and he does what is called the “Love Drawer” Some of the information may not pertain to everyone, but this is a great PDF of basic things you should have in your “Emergency File”.

  3. posted by EMM on

    DON’T put your will or other critical items like burial notes and anything you will need in the first few months after a death in a bank safe deposit box. They are usually sealed upon death of any box holder and you may not get access until the court decides who is the administrator of the will. In some cases even after the personal representative is assigned by the court you won’t get immediate access.

    If an attorney did the will they should hold the originals otherwise get a home fireproof safe instead and make sure your heirs and someone not in your family knows where the keys and info is on how to open it.

  4. posted by Ginger on

    I’m seconding EMM’s advice not to put things in a safety deposit box. I’ve seen several of my peers end up in real trouble because they couldn’t get access to their parents’ safety deposit boxes after an unexpected death. One friend’s father had left the will in his box!

    Don’t do it. A fireproof box is much better.

  5. posted by Erin Doland on

    You all make excellent points about the safety deposit box … taking the statement out of the post now … Thanks!!

  6. posted by BeforeYouAreGone on

    Also take consideration of your online assets (email, bank accounts, stock trading, 401K, Paypal, eBay, credit card, etc) as well as your regular online payments ( online games, web hosting, domains, anything else you pay online through automatic payments or credit cards). In this day and age, there is so much we do online that we tend to forget what else should be handled for our estate should we be gone. Last thing you need is to leave a bunch of online accounts still sucking money out of your credit card or checking account long after you have kicked the bucket.

  7. posted by Mary on

    Our version is a briefcase – readily available with the usual including all the life insurance policies. When my husband realized how stressed out I was about not knowing how to put my hands on this stuff, he organized it in the briefcase and includes a letter that he writes to me every year detailing what he thinks I should do in the event of his death. It’s strangely comforting and I can see why Dave Ramsey would call this a “love box.” My husband is typically not very organized so this really does make me loved! These comments have shown me we still have a little more work to do – mainly store these documents in a fire-proof safe.

    It’s also cool to see the briefcase every morning, year after year and realize how blessed we are that we haven’t “needed” it other than to update its contents. Finally it was a great way to put that leather briefcase he received as a graduation present to good use – I don’t know anyone who still carries a traditional briefcase!

  8. posted by Russel on

    This is probably stating the obvious but be sure to keep everything updated as things change.

  9. posted by LJ on

    @Russel– a good example of this is all the furor when James Brown died about how he didn’t mention his (was it 5-year old or 2-year old?) son in his will, and how strange that was since he acknowledged him and had a relationship with him, and why would he be so cruel as to slight a small child like that?

    It was only mentioned as an aside that the will had last been updated a couple of years BEFORE the kid was even born. So he wasn’t guilty of an intentional slight as the media tried to imply– but merely of waiting too long to update the will. He died rather suddenly, so he probably figured that he had time to get around to it eventually.

  10. posted by stacey on

    When my father died (about 11 years ago) we spent three weeks searching our home for the deed to the house. My brother finally found it stuck in a bookcase between computer books. We could have spend that time sorting out the house. Since it didn’t get done then, it’s getting done NOW, eleven years later. . . .by me alone.

  11. posted by Shanel Yang on

    My father didn’t leave a will (or make any other preparations for his death), even though he knew he was dying of cancer. Instead, he told his wife/my mom one thing (he was leaving everything to her, according to her) and something else entirely to me and my 3 younger sisters (he was leaving it all to share equally amongst us). Sadly, when our mom tried to liquidate everything and take it with her back to Korean, leaving the rest of us in the lurch (though we were all young adults at the time, we all had various debts, etc., and several of us had moved back into the house she wanted to liquidate). It turned into an ugly mess. The worst part is, all of it could have been avoided easily, especially since my father’s death was neither sudden nor unexpected.

    Thanks for reminding us to get our affairs in order to avoid such unnecessary pain and confusion! Hmm. Where is that will of mine? I’m going to look for it now.

  12. posted by Michele on

    I was just discussing this with DH, and have decided to put together a file for “right away” in case something happens to one of us. I would need to know who to call at his work. He needs the specific instructions on how to feed the dogs (fairly complicated in our case due to health issues). We also need the rest of the stuff mentioned in this post and comment, but there are some things we each handle that need to handled right away.

  13. posted by Karen on

    Hi Erin,
    Do you know if it is really necessary to see a lawyer to draft a will, or are the DIY/software versions OK? My husband & I need to do our wills but are stuck on this issue. I’d rather not pay a lawyer if we don’t have to. Thanks.

  14. posted by Beverly on

    The most important documents you can complete are the living will/medical durable power of attorney, general power of attorney, and last will and testament. Even if you don’t own anything, the first is most important, because it gives someone other than yourself the ability to make health care decisions for you and spells out what some of those decisions should be. A general power of attorney allows someone other than yourself to access your financial records and use your money on your behalf. So even if you don’t own anything and don’t need a will, you need those first documents, if you are over 21. I’ve worked in the health care field for 40 years, and I can’t tell you the stress people have had due to the lack of these papers. You need to make copies and make sure people know where they are, even carry one around with you if you have a chronic illness.

  15. posted by Shannon on

    I would ABSOLUTELY hire an attorney. Talk to friends/family for a recommendation of someone trusted. Why would you want to scrimp on something so crucially important? Unclear or improperly drafted wills can cause litigation stretching on for years and cost $1000s in legal fees. They are not a simple matter and should definitely be prepared by a competent lawyer.

    You want to make sure the people you love are provided for not force them into a legal mess. A will is definitely not a place to try to save a few dollars. It’s possibly the most important document you will ever create.

  16. posted by Cynthia Friedlob, The Thoughtful Consumer on

    Perhaps you’ve discussed this in other posts concerning financial planning, but one other thing to consider is holding your assets in a trust. This avoids probate which can be quite expensive. In California, for example, if you have assets over $100,000, your estate must go through probate. Other states have their own requirements. If you have “real property,” i.e. own a home, it’s definitely a good idea to have the title to the property held in the name of your trust rather than by you or you and your spouse.

    A revocable trust is not expensive for an attorney to set up for you (a few hundred dollars unless you have some pretty elaborate requirements), and it can be modified over the years just as you would update or modify a will.

    You may also choose to hold other assets, including bank or brokerage accounts in the name of your trust. All the provisions for distribution of personal possessions that you would normally list in a will can be covered under your trust, too. This will simplify everything for your heirs at a time when simplification is very helpful.

  17. posted by Karen on

    My Dad died suddenly last year, and most of his papers were relatively well organized. But he did a lot of his banking and bill paying online, and I didn’t have any of his passwords. (I tried to guess them, but evidently he took the advice about picking a “difficult to guess” password to heart.) This was a major problem – I couldn’t even find out how much was in his bank account, what bills were due, if there were automatic payments coming out of his bank account, etc. It actually took me a couple of months to get this information, and it was a major hassle.

    Of course you want to be careful with your passwords, but if you do online banking, bill paying, etc., it’s a good idea to have them listed somewhere just in case. This is especially true if you have opted out of getting statements in the mail and only get your bills online.

  18. posted by Journeyer on

    We prepared our wills a couple of years ago, and got part way through gathering all the other important information into one spot. I need to finish doing it. It’s a difficult thing to do, but is so worth it in case of an emergency.

  19. posted by Susan on

    I am going to try to get my husband to join me in making a yearly new years appointment to go over and update wills
    and generally get our burial plans in order.
    Because if I lost him, I know all I’d want to do is rend my clothes and sit in sack cloth and ashes for a month, not frantically burrow through piles of paper to get our mortgage paid.
    But especially for women with kids (and who tend to be the ones to run the home/carpool/school/doctor details) I think it’s also important to have a Home journal that lists all those day-to-day details that any family or spouse would be truly lost without.
    I like my Flylady’s Control Journal. They have instructions on how to make one at
    Having this means that I KNOW that if I get the flu or hit by a bus, my kids lives will go on and my husband won’t be lost without all the facts stored only between my ears.

  20. posted by john wilson on

    Most financial accounts can avoid probate if you fill out beneficiary forms. IRAs and 401/403 accounts will use the form to pass on the account. Don’t put IRAs or 401s in a will since this ofter will break the tax break that comes with IRAs and 401s! Use the form from the institution. If the space they give is not big enough for all those you want to list attach a sheet to the form.
    You should contact each bank/financial institution your have an account with and get a copy of their “death contract” or “transfer on death” or whatever they call it and fill it out. This allows your account to pass directly to your beneficiary when you die.

    If you have a joint checking account and fill out the form then the account passes to the survivor(s) without going through probate just as your IRA does.

    If couples have separate accounts then you still can fill out the form and the account will still skip probate and pass automatically to the survivor.

    You can either scan it before you send it back or keep a copy of it in a “death book” so the survivor knows what to do. You also want a copy in case the institution “loses” the original.
    Don’t forget to review the forms annually. You can create an entry in a web calendar program and have it recur annually and ask for an email to be sent to you as a reminder.

  21. posted by john wilson on

    Don’t put 401s or IRAs in a trust since that will break the tax advantage…and don’t put them in a will since the beneficiary form trumps or overrides the will.

  22. posted by M.R. on

    We call this file “The Hurricane File” because if we have to evacuate quickly, we take the file, the cat and our prepacked food/medicine/supplies boxes and we go. People will say that there is usually enough advance warning for packing for hurricane evacuation…but there are also MANY others trying to leave at the same time. And if you are on a barrier island, the traffic lines for the bridges can get very long.

  23. posted by Carrie on

    The best thing you can do to help ease the process for your loved ones – aside from letting your wishes be known – is to keep your personal clutter to a minimum. I’ve been through the process of breaking down living quarters after several funerals and there is nothing more grueling than having to decide what to pitch and what to keep of someone else’s belongings. (Although it’s pretty clear that my Grandmother did not need her bank statements from 1992 any more.)

  24. posted by Sandra on

    Check out Dovetail Organizer ( – an unclutterer solution for this problem if ever there was one! I haven’t used it myself but am considering purchasing it.

    Dovetail is an ‘digital safety deposit box’ where you can store information about pretty much everything about your day-to-day life. It’s encrypted software that organizes your information into 6 categories: personal, medical, property, financial, business, and estate. The software provide checklists, info can be entered using forms, and you can also scan documents to include.

  25. posted by Deborah Marchant on

    One of the best motivators to uncluttering our deaths is to imagine how it feels to be The One to unclutter your life after you leave. Its like leaving a poor filing system behind or an unfinished project behind for your co-workers to be confused about when you retire or leave a job. Be kind to Everyone. Give the Gift that Keeps on Giving- To be well thought of after we leave is a great gift to leave behind. Think of the good memories you’ll be creating by being Thoughtful. So look around your life and see what you can do to just leave a few drawers full, a way to pay the bills, and a few items in the refrigerator to eat or throw away after you take The Trip. The plants will still need watering and the pets will still need care, so have a plan already in place for them as well. And Bon Voyage!

  26. posted by Mark Gavagan on

    Great post Erin.

    These things are hard to think about, but a few hours of time organizing these decisions and information can make a world of difference to those left behind.

    Please consider “The It’s All Right Here Life & Affairs Organizer” book as a comprehensive and easy-to-use guide for organizing all of your personal and financial affairs.

    Topics include final arrangements, wills, trusts, investments, insurance, who should get what when you die, location of important keys and documents, military service records, and on and on.



    -Mark Gavagan (author)

  27. posted by Gayle White-Malloy on

    Hello Erin
    I absolutely love your blog and congratulations on your new little man.
    This topic is so timely with National Prepareness Month to cause us to think about how can we put our life in order and reduce anxiety in the event of a life’s emergency.
    One of your readers very kindly referenced our product and website
    We developed a digital safety deposit box so that individuals can safely store all of their important life information such as medical history, bank information, investments, passports, credit cards, insurance policies, debts, loans, properties, mortgages, wills and power of attorneys and so much more. You also can scan in every document using the Fujitsu Scansnap for digital backups of everything. All of the information stored in the dovetail organizer is secure and password protected. it can be saved to a secure read only file on a USB drive for sharing with family members, executors, professional advisors or simply for travel backup and quick data retrieval.
    We have just introduced a special with Fujitsu Scansnap for any of their customers to purchase dovetail at a significant discount. We are a North American company.
    It is definitely all about doing what you can now when things are good so that when life potentially changes on a dime, we know we have done what we can to be prepared, we have backups of all of our information and distributed our information to those who need it.
    Check us out to view our videos and educate yourself on what you can do to be prepared. Knowledge is Power.
    Best Regards, Gayle – President of Dovetail Inc.

  28. posted by Brooke on

    Anyone with significant assets should create a trust in addition to a will. At least in my state, transferring ownership of your home, brokerage accounts, etc to a trust means they do not go through probate upon one of the trustees death and a trust can clearly define who gets what including guardianship of any minors left behind. Everything simply stays the same. Of course if both trustees pass (a married couple for example) then the benificiares of the the trust will inherit it’s assets and should set up their own trust. Debtors don’t see assets that don’t go through probate and there are certain tax benefits in addition to not being as easily contested by a rouge family member who comes out of the wordwork.

  29. posted by Judith R on

    My mother passed away late last year at 89, leaving a storage unit, a will from the 1970s, and four safe deposit boxes, one of which contained a second, but still decades old, will. The attorney she named as executor predeceased her and the state she lived in requires the administrator to be a resident of that state, which puts the burden on one sibling. We will be spending months more untangling her estate, despite the fact that she had minimal assets, which are being drained by fees. It’s a reminder to me to get my own house in order so as not to burden my adult kids.

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