Being an organized executor

An executor is the person appointed to administer the estate of a person who has died. Being named as an executor is a privilege, but the title also comes with a significant amount of responsibility. Sometimes it may take several years to finalize an estate if it is complicated or if there are disputes among the beneficiaries.

If you feel you cannot adequately perform the duties of the executor (perhaps you live across the country or you have extensive personal commitments), it is important that you do not start. You will need to speak with the lawyer handling the estate as soon as possible so a new estate administrator can be appointed.

If you have chosen to act as an executor, organization and careful record keeping will keep the task from becoming overwhelming.

It is important to set up a good filing system. You will need to keep copies of everything you have sent to and received from banks, the government, creditors, and beneficiaries, etc. It is a good idea to use a small portable filing box to set up the estate’s filing system so it is separate from your own house and business.

The folders should include the following:

  • Vital Records. This includes birth and marriage certificates, citizenship status, divorce decree, social security card, passport, etc. of the deceased.
  • Legal Papers. You will need the original and multiple certified copies of the death certificate. Also keep copies of the will, codicils, and living will, etc.
  • Employment Documents. This folder would contain all of the documents relating to the deceased’s employment and employment benefits. If the deceased was retired at the time of death, retirement and pension documents would be stored here.
  • Financial. The estate must have its own bank account, separate from your personal account and separate from the deceased’s accounts. Keep all deposit and withdrawal records, as well as statements. You will also need to keep proof of account closures and receipts for any debts paid (e.g. for the deceased’s credit cards).
  • Government. This folder would contain all documentation relating to the deceased’s income taxes, government pensions or other benefits.
  • House. If the deceased had a home, it should be made secure and the home insurance company must be notified as soon as possible. Keep all bills and receipts pertaining to the house in this file.
  • Automobile. If the deceased had a car, it should be located and secured. The car insurance company must be notified as soon as possible. Beneficiaries should not use the vehicle until it is clear that they are entitled to use it and that appropriate insurance is in place.
  • Other Assets. Keep records of other assets. You may wish to have a separate folder for larger assets such as a cottage or recreational vehicle. Smaller assets such as art or jewelry could be combined in the same file.
  • Estate Management Costs. If you have used any of your personal funds to administer the estate, such as purchasing postage stamps or paying for parking while at the lawyer’s office, keep the receipts. You may be able to claim this against the estate.

If you will be doing much of your communication via email, create an email address specifically for the estate. You should also set up a separate section or even a separate account on your computer, specifically to deal with the estate. To simplify organization, the names of the folders on your hard drive should mirror the names of the folders in your filing box.

Remember to save all email attachments to your hard drive especially if they are receipts or proofs of account closures. If the receipt is in the body of the email itself, print the email or save it to permanently readable, but non-editable format such as PDF.

Keep a journal documenting the work you have performed for the estate. A notebook is ideal for capturing this information. Record the dates and times you visited or phoned lawyers, bankers, and other estate advisors. Take notes during meetings. This will help when you need a reminder of what was discussed. You should also write down when death notices were sent and when accounts were marked closed. This alert you to outstanding tasks. Should there be any question about what you did and on which date, you’ll have your notebook to refer to.

Patience is crucial as an executor. You may be held personally liable if you rush and miss crucial legal steps. Many people wish to distribute the assets quickly, but it is usually against the law for you to do this until you have proper legal authorization. This authorization, or probate, varies widely across jurisdictions so it is very important to get advice from the estate lawyers before proceeding.

Although many people think they should pay bills as soon as they come in, they should not necessarily do this. In most cases, creditors (e.g. the electric company) are notified of the death and must wait for payment until the probate court prioritizes the list of creditor claims. Additionally, it’s important to remember not to let Cousin Bertha even take her favorite salt and pepper shakers from the estate until the authorization process is complete, and creditors have been paid.

Having an attorney who knows the rules in the deceased jurisdiction is essential. Attorneys can also help mediate beneficiary disputes, which can sometimes become unpleasant.

The role of executor can be challenging but working with attorneys and other professionals as well as keeping organized and detailed records, can ensure that the estate will be settled smoothly.

Have you had the experience of being an executor? What organizational tips do you suggest?

How to remember future to-do tasks

While you may have a system for tracking normal to-do items, how do you remember to-dos that are many years in the future? The following are a few examples:

  • I recently read a FEMA document (PDF) that said smoke alarms should be replaced ten years from the date of manufacture. How do you remember to do that?
  • I just updated my will and trust, ten years after I first created them. How do you remember to review these documents and make updates as necessary?
  • I had hip replacement surgery in May 2016. All’s well, and now I don’t need to see my surgeon again for a follow-up until May 2020. How do I remember to make that appointment?

Sometimes a reminder comes indirectly. When one of the people I had named as an executor of my will moved out of the area, it reminded me that I needed to update my legal documents. While I was removing her name, I found other updates I wanted to make, too.

And in some cases, you’re likely to get a reminder from the related service provider. My lawyer sends me annual reminders to review my legal documents, and my surgeon’s office will remind me I need to schedule an appointment with him. But these follow-up systems are fallible, and I like to have my own reminders in place.

Since I use an online calendar that goes out for many years, my first inclination is always to put critical future events such as the doctor appointment on my calendar as soon as I become aware of the need. I have an item on April 15, 2020 to schedule that appointment for mid-May. When I get the smoke detector down from the ceiling to see when it was made, I’ll add the replacement date to my calendar. I also added a recurring annual item to review my legal documents.

Alternatively, there are all sorts of reminder apps you can use. While people usually add reminders for items in the near future (pick up dry cleaning, etc.) there’s no reason they couldn’t be used for to-dos that are many years out.

If you use a paper planner, you’re probably not going to be able to add something to your calendar for 10 years out. But if you use a binder-style planner such as Day-Timer or Circa you could use a to-do list (or just a blank note page) to capture all these future to-dos and carry that list forward, year after year. At the beginning of each year, you could add any relevant items from that list to the upcoming year’s calendar.

Finally, if you use a tickler file (such as the Smead desk organizer/sorter) you could put reminders for all future-year items in your December file, and then move them to the appropriate months at the start of the next year (or keep them in December if they apply to a future year).

RIM: Part one, Generally Accepted Recordkeeping Principles

Back in 2007, Erin wrote a series of posts on reducing paper clutter. In the past 10 years, there have been many changes. In some cases, the rules and regulations regarding the access and storage of paper and digital documents have changed. Technology itself has changed, and since more and more information is coming to us in electronic format, many of us are now overwhelmed by paper and digital clutter.

So, let’s look at this subject from the “managing information” point of view.

In the business world, organizing paper and electronic documents is commonly referred to as records and information management (RIM). Businesses have (or should have) systems set up to create, store, archive, and dispose their documents according to rules and regulations pertaining to their specific industries. Our homes are not businesses but there are several similarities. We have records related to income and expenses (receipts, pay statements). We have documents that prove we exist (birth certificates, social security cards) and that we have done things (school report cards, employment reviews).

We can adapt RIM theory to our households. ARMA International has developed Generally Accepted Recordkeeping Principles® (GARP). Let’s see how these principles can be applied to our personal and household recordkeeping.

Accountability: Someone in your household needs to be responsible for managing paper and electronic documents and information. If information management is to be a shared duty, ensure all of those who participate in the process know which tasks need to be done and how they should be done.

Integrity: Your paper and electronic documents need to be authentic and reliable. Ensure you have the original documents where required. If you transfer your paper documents to electronic format (or vice versa), ensure it is done properly. We will cover how to do this in an upcoming post.

Protection: Your records need to be safe. Paper documents, especially vital records and legal documents, should be kept in a locked safe or filing cabinet. Electronic records should be backed-up in at least two different places and password protected.

Compliance: You need to adhere to all laws and regulations pertaining to your information. If you have a home business, you might be required to keep different information from someone who does not. Those with unique financial or medical situations may be required to comply with other rules and directives. We’ll cover more about this in an upcoming post.

Availability: This is a key point for most people. You need to be able to access records easily and in a timely manner. Knowing which documents are paper and which are electronic, as well as where, and how they are stored is essential. We’ll review paper and electronic filing systems.

Retention: It is important to keep records for the required period. For example, the United States Internal Revenue Service requires that you keep your income tax records for three years after filing (and up to 7 years in certain circumstances). The Canada Revenue Agency requires six years. If you have receipts that were submitted for income taxes for both countries, you must keep records for the longer of the two. We’ll discuss a retention schedule that will help you develop an organized filing system.

Disposition: Most records need to be destroyed at the end of their lifecycle either by physical destruction such as shredding paper or destroying CDs, or by securely erasing/reformatting computer drives. Eliminating unneeded records saves space in your filing cabinet, saves time because you don’t have to manage so much stuff, and reduces your risk of identity theft because unneeded information is destroyed. However, you may wish to keep some records for your archives (e.g. stub from your first pay check, ownership papers from your first car, etc.)

Transparency: Finally, it is important that your system understandable to certain other people. Of course, if you’re sharing these duties with a spouse/partner, you both need to understand the system. You also need to be able to explain it to an auditor (should the tax man ever visit) and the executor of your estate should be able to easily understand how you process your documents as well.

We’ll dive deeper into all of these topics over the next few weeks. By the time we’re through, you’ll have an excellent, easy-to-manage filing system.

 

Other posts in this series:

Book review: Your Digital Afterlife

Some of our most precious possessions are now in digital form. In many cases, email has replaced hand-written or typed letters. Digital photos have largely replaced those taken with film. And then there are the components of our on-line presence: websites, Facebook pages, etc.

Your Digital Afterlife, by Evan Carroll and John Romano, explains how you can help ensure that these items get handled according to your wishes after your death. The book is copyright 2011, which might make you think it’s dated. But while specifics regarding websites may change, most of the book deals with issues and strategies, not the tools you might choose to use. And the legal status of digital executors and digital estate plans, largely undefined at the time the book was written, is still largely undefined — although some states have passed legislation about this.

The first part of the book explains why planning for your digital afterlife is so important and why that can be challenging. For example, the authors wrote, “One of the many issues with preserving your digital content is that much of it does not reside on a computer over which you have direct control.” The service providers you rely on may go out of business or may have terms of service that restrict how others can access your account after your death.

There are also issue related the sheer volume of our digital stuff. The authors wisely suggested:

Do your heirs a favor and think ahead during your life and tend to your date. Curate and weed your collections. Consider tagging your favorites, deleting the duplicates, editing them, and tagging them. … You could certainly keep all of your photos, but be sure that your favorites are kept separately.

The second half of the book deals with creating an inventory of your digital assets and a plan for sharing that inventory so your wishes can be honored.

The inventory is critical because no one can do anything with assets they don’t know exists or that they can’t access. For example, would anyone know I have a subscription to the Associated Press Online Stylebook, that auto-renews, if I didn’t have it in an inventory?

The inventory would include user names and passwords, along with your wishes for how each item should be handled. For example, do you want a social media or photo sharing account to be deleted? Do you want some photos within those accounts to be shared with others?

While the authors show the inventory as a spreadsheet, I realized my item listing in 1Password can serve as my inventory. I would just need to add comments indicating what I’d like done with each item.

Once you have the inventory, you need to determine how the right person gets access to that inventory after your death. If you totally trust the other person, as I trust my brother, you might send that person a copy of the inventory file — or make sure the person knows how to access your computer where the inventory is stored. Otherwise, there are digital estate services that can provide information to the appropriate person once they receive the necessary documentation, including a death certificate.

Your Digital Afterlife is a quick read. Some of the early chapters seemed to be stating the obvious, so I skimmed through them. The inventory forms seemed a bit too simple in some cases — for example, they had no place to enter the answers to the questions that some sites (such as my bank) ask before granting access to your account. But the general concepts are logical and well explained. It’s a good book for getting you started thinking about a complex and sensitive topic.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2014

2013

2011

  • Unitasker Wednesday: Coffee Grinder Brush
    Sadly, this specialized brush can’t do the job of getting particulates out of your grinder any better than a pastry brush (which you probably already own if you’re grinding your own coffee and spices).
  • Searching for inspiration for a multipurpose guest room
    I’m looking for ways to make our guest room into a fabulous guest room and a practical hobby room in one. The solution will have to include storage for the hobby supplies that can be completely closed up when guests are present and using it for their retreat. And, I want it to be extremely practical as a hobby room when guests aren’t visiting.

2010

  • Musings on children’s birthday parties
    As a parent, you want the world for your kid. You want your child to be liked by his classmates, you want your child to be happy, and you want to celebrate his life. A basic swimming party with hamburgers can easily cost a hundred dollars — spending 10 times more once a year on a birthday party wouldn’t seem like such a big deal, especially if you’ve got the disposable income to do it. Research even shows that experiences make you happier than physical possessions.

What important documents to keep and how to organize them

Now that income tax season is past, it’s a good opportunity to organize important personal documents, determine how they should be stored, and how long they need to be kept.

Keep: Vital documents

Vital records are documents issued by the government that prove you exist and indicate your status. These documents include birth certificates, marriage licences, divorce decrees, death certificates, adoption certificates, citizenship and immigration papers, military enrollment and discharge papers, criminal records and pardons, passports, and social security number.

Keep: Legal documents

Legal documents explain types of contractual agreements between you and someone else or grant specific rights for someone to act on your behalf. These types of documents include wills, powers of attorney, living wills, custody agreements, and spousal support agreements. They also include deeds or land titles, patents, affidavits, and articles of incorporation for a business.

It is important to keep vital records as long as you are alive. Certain legal documents can be destroyed when superseded.

Both vital records and legal documents should be stored in a safe and secure location such as a safety deposit box or a fireproof safe. You should also keep a scanned copy encrypted on a secure cloud drive in case the documents are lost, damaged, or stolen.

Keep: Financial documents

Financial documents are a formal record of your financial activities. These include your income taxes, bank account and investment statements, stocks and bonds certificates, loan contracts, utilities, and all other types of bills. This type of information should be kept secure in a filing cabinet, although you may wish to keep some documents such as stocks and bonds certificates in a safety deposit box or fireproof safe.

The required length of time to keep financial documents depends on the country in which you live (different countries have different taxation laws), the state or province within that country, the type of document, as well as your particular financial situation. For example, if you are claiming a portion of your home electric bill as part of your business, you may be required to keep your electric bills for as long as required by income tax legislation for your business. If you don’t have a home business, you may simply wish to scan a copy of it and shred it immediately or even receive the bill electronically and save it to a folder on your computer. It is very important that you verify with your accountant, tax attorney, and/or financial advisor about document retention for your specific situation.

Keep: Licences and Insurance

The licence and insurance category includes licences such as driving, flying, and boating, and all types of insurance (life, home, auto). Generally, these documents can be kept until superseded or until they expire or are cancelled.

Insurance companies often provide discounts if you can prove you have been continually insured for an extended period of time and have minimal claims. If you are changing insurance companies, perhaps because you will be moving house soon, contact your current insurance company and ask them to provide a letter showing your customer status. Insurance discounts can be offered to drivers who have clean driving records, so before you move, contact your state/province and request a driving history. Keep the insurance letters and driving history records for as long as you hold insurance and a drivers’ licence.

Keep: Health records

For most people, their family doctor keeps a record of their health information. However, you may wish to keep your own details, such as family history of chronic diseases and conditions, a list of your own vaccinations and immunizations, surgeries and procedures, and any allergies, adverse drug reactions, as well as a copy of your dental records. If you travel often, you may wish to store this information securely on your smartphone or in the cloud so you have access to it whenever you need it. Paper records can be stored in a filing cabinet.

TIP: When you visit a specialist, get one of their business cards and write the date and the name of the tests/procedures you had on the back of the card. Keep the card in your medical file. If you move to a new city, you will have the contact details of the clinic and can easily have the records shipped to your new doctor.

Keep: Education and employment records

Education and employment documents include transcripts, diplomas, certificates, performance reviews, letters of recommendation, and commendations. These should be kept as long as you are eligible for employment (see “Organizing your employment history“). You may not need your grade school report cards once you graduate from university, but they might be something you wish to share with your own children.

Keep: Religious documents

Religious records, such as baptismal certificates, may form an important part of your family history. They may also be required as proof of your faith should you wish to enroll in a faith-based educational institution or get married in a particular church. Keep these records in a filing cabinet.

One last word

After you’ve passed away, the executor of your estate and/or lawyer may need some of the documents described above, so ensure that this person or people know where and how to access them. If you are the executor to someone’s estate, ask the lawyer and tax accountant how long you need to keep this paperwork after a death and closing of the estate and ensure they are kept safe during the retention period.

Protecting and organizing your digital data, the collegiate edition

This fall, my son will be attending university back in Canada (we still live in Britain) and there are number of things we have to do to get him ready. One of those things is to get his electronic gear ready for the transition. Many of the things we are doing to help him get ready are things we can all do to keep our digital information protected and organized.

1Password

On Unclutterer, we’ve talked about using 1Password for estate management by sending your master password to your executor. In the case of my son, he will send us his master password just in case his computer is ever lost or stolen.

1Password is great because users can save their password recovery questions, as well as secure information such as health card, social insurance, and passport numbers. 1Password will also save software registration information. We will also make sure our son has the 1Password app for his iPhone and sync the passwords through iCloud or Dropbox so he has his secure information available when he needs it.

Find my iPhone

As a family, we share our Apple ID information. This allows us to find each other’s iPhones and computers should they be lost or stolen. We’ve also enabled Send Last Location which sends the last known location of the iPhone to Apple when the battery becomes critically low.

Online Banking

Our son already manages his personal finances. iBank is our family’s preferred software system because it works with banks outside of Canada and the US.

Unclutter Computer Files

As we will do with paper files, we will remove digital files from my son’s computer before he goes to university that contain private information someone else might find valuable. Additionally, clearing all clutter will free up space on the drive to save new work. I doubt he’ll need a copy of his 9th Grade history project in digital format.

Backup System

While he is at school, we’ll set up an online back up system for our son through either Dropbox or iCloud so he won’t lose his homework. Fortunately, all of the work he does on the university’s servers will be automatically backed up.

Three organizing tips from recent news

As I read the news for the past couple weeks, I noticed a number of stories that touched on organizing themes. The following subjects caught my eye:

Handling Craigslist exchanges

Would you like to sell some things on Craigslist, but finding a safe place to do the exchange of money and stuff has you concerned? Lily Hay Newman wrote an article for Slate about cities where police stations are offering their lobbies as those safe places.

Saving information before it disappears from the Internet

Many of us are keeping less paper than we used to because the information we want is available online. In some cases, we expect it might disappear and we’re fine with that. We know that stores don’t stock the same products forever, for example.

But what if you find something such as a particularly poignant personal essay that you want to keep for future reference? As Carter Maness wrote:

We assume everything we publish online will be preserved. But websites that pay for writing are businesses. They get sold, forgotten and broken. Eventually, someone flips the switch and pulls it all down.

Maness wrote from the perspective of authors whose work is no longer available to show to editors who may want to hire them. But for those of us who are the readers, it’s a good reminder that we can’t assume that creating a bookmark or favorite will ensure we can retrieve a precious bit of writing. Besides the commercial websites that Maness mentions, there are personal websites and blogs that the owners decide to discontinue (or which get taken down after a death).

You may be able to find a missing article through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, but there’s no certainty about that. Therefore, you may want to keep selected articles in digital form on your own devices by saving them to Evernote, by printing them to PDFs, by saving them as webarchive files (if you use the Safari browser), etc.

Preparing for your digital afterlife

Dave has written before about estate planning for your digital assets, but there’s a new twist. As Rachel Emma Silverman reported in The Wall Street Journal:

A controversial new state law is making it easier for estate executors to access digital data — such as email, photos and social-media postings — after the account holder dies.

Many Internet companies strictly limit access to their customers’ accounts to the account holder, in accordance, they say, with federal privacy law. …

But under a Delaware law passed last summer, executors can now access online accounts without a court order, unless the deceased has instructed otherwise. Similar legislation is under consideration in several other states.

Silverman went on to explain why this may also matter to people in the U.S. who don’t live in Delaware. Her article may inspire you to ensure your own estate-planning documents clearly state your wishes when it comes to accessing your digital files. Consult with your personal estate attorney to get guidance regarding your particular situation.

Being organized about logins and passwords

I’ve been changing a lot of passwords this week because of the major computer security problem known as Heartbleed. While going through this exercise was no fun, there were some good things that happened as a result, too.

Managing passwords

Most importantly, I’m managing passwords better. As I change them, I enter them into 1Password. It’s one of the many password management tools around — and the one Dave recommended a while ago.

Before, I had a few critical passwords in 1Password as an estate organization tool; I could give my executor (and the person with my financial power of attorney) the passwords to my computer and to 1Password, and he had everything he needed to manage my digital life. I also had a file (innocuously named without “password” in the title) with a list of hints and reminders in it to help me remember the passwords I had chosen. As it happened, though, I didn’t always remember the passwords based on the reminders I had created for myself.

As of now, I’m not using all of 1Password’s functionality. I don’t yet use it to login, and I don’t sync it across devices. But even with my limited use, it’s been a big help.

Evaluating accounts

As I went through my list of websites where I had logins and passwords, I found some that I just don’t need any more. For example, I had a login to IFTTT — which is a very useful tool for some people, but not anything I’ve found I need. So instead of changing the password and adding it to 1Password, I just closed the account.

Points of confusion

I found some notes in my password hints file that were confusing, including my notes about Etsy. It winds up I had created two accounts, which I used interchangeably. Since each one has some purchase history, I’m leaving both in place — but now I have two entries in 1Password so I won’t get confused again.

Notes about complicated passwords

I changed my email passwords, and I thought I had updated my computer and my cell phone appropriately — until I found out that I could receive email on my phone, but not send it. I figured out what I had missed, and now I have a note in 1Password reminding me to make this additional update whenever I change passwords again.

Remembering master passwords

Since my password for 1Password is a long, complicated collection of letters and numbers, I do have it written down and tucked away somewhere — a place no one is going to find it. However, I’ve been going into 1Password enough lately that I don’t even need to pull out my reminder any longer.

What about you? Have you taken steps to better password management lately? If so, please share in the comments!

Estate organization

No one likes to think about dying, but disorganization and lack of planning while you’re alive can lead to family disputes and large tax payments after you’ve passed away. The following are a few tips to help you get organized in case of an emergency.

List what you own

Create a home inventory listing everything you own. Most lawyers suggest you include everything with a value greater than $100. However, if there are sentimental items valued less than $100, list those as well. Non-physical items should also be inventoried. This would include digital music and movie collections and computer software applications.

Include other assets in the inventory such as savings accounts, life insurance policies, investments, and pension plans at various past places of employment.

List what you owe

List all of your debts including car loans, mortgage, and outstanding balances on credit cards. Create a list of any institutions or organizations you pay on a regular basis, for example your monthly payment to your gym or annual donations to a favourite charity. Include on this list any places that may have your credit card information on file such as your iTunes or Netflix accounts.

Simplify and unclutter

Once you’ve completed your inventory, you may decide that it is better to liquidate some of your assets while you’re still alive and well. You will be able to see the joy in people’s faces as you pass along some of your treasured items that you are no longer interested in keeping. If you have a certain collection, (e.g. Star Wars collectibles) ask your family members who would most appreciate receiving it on your death. You don’t want to burden your family members with something they would consider clutter. If you can’t find anyone, consider leaving instructions for selling it.

Get professional financial and legal advice

Each jurisdiction has its own laws, rules and regulations regarding estate planning, so it is extremely important to get professional advice. Lawyers and estate and financial planners can tell you which accounts should be made joint and which ones “transfer-on-death.” They can also provide advice on which accounts beneficiaries need to be listed. These professionals will provide information on what your executor would be expected to do when you pass away and what options are available for beneficiaries.

Choose an executor (estate administrator)

An executor is someone who administers your estate after you’ve passed. This person (or people) is responsible for locating and probating your will, making your funeral arrangements, paying taxes owed by your estate, and distributing your assets to beneficiaries. This can be a daunting task for many people so it is important to choose your executor carefully. Discuss your estate with potential executors. You may decide to choose co-executors, such asa family member and a lawyer.

Ideally, the executor should have enough free time to complete all of the tasks. (It can take up to three years to completely settle an estate). The executor should be organized and be able to keep complete and accurate records of all transactions pertaining to the estate. If you have assets outside of the country, your executor may have to obtain a passport and visas to deal with those assets. If you spend much of your time online (banking and investing), consider choosing an executor who is tech-savvy.

Getting it all organized

All necessary documents should be accessible by your executor when you pass away. I am the executor to my aunt’s estate and she has a folder in her filing cabinet labeled, “What to do when I’m dead (or almost).” I know that I should look in this folder should anything happen to my aunt. This folder contains important information such as:

  • The key for the safety deposit box where the legal documents are stored (Will, Power of Attorney, deeds, passport, birth certificate, etc.)
  • Names and contact information of lawyers, financial advisors, banks.
  • Home inventory list
  • List of people to notify of death (friends and neighbours)
  • Funeral arrangement details and contact information for funeral home

A file folder is a good option if the management of the estate is fairly straightforward, but if your estate is larger and more complicated there are a couple of organizational alternatives.

Portavault is a binder that holds hundreds of pages of documents in easily identifiable categories. It comes with a water-resistant case and lockable zipper that makes it secure and easy to transport in case of emergency. It comes with a list of handy tips and tricks to help you organize your documents.

For those who prefer a non-paper-based solution, The Doc Safe allows you to keep copies of your documents online. The advantage of a cloud-based system is that it is accessible from anywhere there is an Internet connection. If your executor is computer-savvy, this might be the best option to choose. However, you need to ensure your executor can access the system and is comfortable with it while your still alive.

Regardless of which system you choose, an organized estate may be the best legacy you can leave your beneficiaries.

In case of death …

No one likes to think about his or her death. However, not thinking about it doesn’t mean it won’t one day happen. Not thinking about it also can put an undue burden on those you leave behind. I’ve recently witnessed firsthand the stress and anxiety thrust upon grieving friends and family members when no instructions or a Will exist.

One of the nicest things you can do for those you love is to have plans in place in case of your death.

If you’ve never taken the time to think about your death, please consider the following actions.

Your job:

  • Think about all of your job responsibilities and determine what you could do to help your boss and co-workers fulfill these responsibilities if you were to suddenly and unexpectedly leave your job. Then, do the things you know could help them. This might include creating a list of all you do, regular deadlines, important contact information, and names of vital files and passwords. Write a memo, put it in an “in case of” envelope, and give it to human resources to be placed in your personnel file. Be sure to tell your boss about the letter, and let her know you’re not planning on anything happening, you’re just being organized. Suggest your co-workers do the same, and review your document every six months to make sure it’s current.
  • If you own your business, meet with a lawyer and have a document drawn up that explicitly says what will happen to your company if you are no longer capable of running it. Identify if the company will be dissolved, sold, or passed on to heirs, as well as how debts and profits will be handled.

Your personal life:

  • Meet with a lawyer and have a Last Will and Testament created.
  • Write a letter detailing exactly what you want done with your body after you death, how you envision your funeral, and any other relevant information. Be specific about any religious traditions you might have, anything you want included in your obituary, and how you will cover the costs of all your wishes. Give a copy of the letter to the executor of your Will and another copy to your lawyer.
  • Review your life insurance policy and make sure it will cover all of your funeral expenses, and any additional insurance you might wish to carry. If you don’t have a life insurance policy, get one.
  • If you wish to be buried, buy a burial plot.
  • Write a letter detailing what you want done with your personal possessions after your death. If you want a niece to have your engagement ring, put it in this letter. Give a copy of the letter to your lawyer.
  • Similar to what was mentioned earlier in the Your Job section, think about all of your responsibilities in your home and personal life. Create a list of all you do, bills and accounts, names of vital files, passwords, contact information for your children’s school, etc. Put this information in an envelope, and put it in a home safe that is secured to the floor. Give a copy of the key and/or code to the executor of your Will to access only in an emergency.
  • Review these documents once a year (or more, if necessary), to ensure they match your current wishes and responsibilities.

Have you taken these steps? Have you planned even more than this? If we have forgotten something on this list, please add it to the comments.

Ask Unclutterer: In-home safe or safety deposit box?

Reader Dawn submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

Do you have any thoughts on whether it’s best to have a safety deposit box vs. an at-home fire/water-proof safe?

We have a fire/water-proof safe mounted to the floor in our master bedroom closet that stores all of our super important documents, as well as some valuables. Maybe that’s not the best idea? Do you have any thoughts about which would be best for safety purposes? It is so convenient (and obviously cheaper) long-term to have these items stored at home, but maybe a financial institution safety deposit box is smarter storage.

There are positive and negative aspects of both options. Ultimately, it comes down to what works best for your family.

A safety deposit box at a bank is nice because it’s 1. fireproof, 2. waterproof, 3. not in your home (in case someone breaks in or a disaster destroys your home), 4. under tight security, and 5. its contents are legally protected in the case of death.

On the other hand, a safety deposit box isn’t all that great because 1. the bank isn’t open 24 hrs a day or on Sundays, 2. it’s easy to lose the key to it, 3. your bank is probably in the same part of the country you are (a natural disaster that wipes out your home likely would destroy the bank, too), 4. there is an annual fee, and 5. since the contents are legally protected, in case of death, typically your estate has to close before the executor of your estate can access the box.

An in-home safe is nice because it’s 1. locked, 2. easily accessible, 24 hours a day seven days a week, 3. when mounted to the floor a burglar can’t easily run off with it, and 4. it’s a one-time expense.

An in-home safe isn’t all that great because 1. based on its fire rating, what is stored inside of it isn’t protected from heat damage for very long, especially digital items, 2. almost all at-home safes are only water resistant, not waterproof, so a fire hose putting out a house fire can still damage the contents, 3. it’s contents are not protected in case of death (which could be either a pro or con), 4. if a natural disaster destroys your home your stuff is gone.

For more information on in-home safes, check out our article “Fireproof storage, part two” from 2007.

We use both an in-home safe and a safety deposit box. Our home safe stores things we might need access to in an emergency (mostly documents, like our Wills), and our safety deposit box stores hard drives and a few small items we would never need on a moment’s notice (like negatives of our wedding photographs, since we were married in ye olden days). Our home safe is only water resistant and not certified to protect digital data, which is why the safety deposit box is something we need.

I also recommend scanning all documents and photographing the valuable items you keep in either location, encrypting these files, and placing a copy securely online. Services like Carbonite and Backblaze are fine for this. Having a copy online is nice if your home or bank are ever destroyed in a disaster (assuming the online data storage facility is in a different part of the country), so you can at least report to an insurance company what was lost and be able to see what items you’ll need to replace.

Thank you, Dawn, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope my response was able to help you. Check the comments for more suggestions.

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