Personal estate planning notebook for key information
Start a notebook for your family with information that would be important if you die or are suddenly incapacitated. Brainstorm and jot down initial thoughts and begin to collect information in your personal estate planning notebook. There is no better way to demonstrate your love than planning for your family’s future.
Key people and recent account statements
You will have important names and contact information, such as financial and legal advisors and insurance agents. Include a recent statement for every investment account, retirement account, bank account, and dividend reinvestment account you own. Replacing the statements in your notebook quarterly is ideal, but update them at least annually.
What about online accounts?
People conduct personal business online these days. Periodically print a statement for each online account if you do not receive hard copies by mail. For accounts that you have closed or transferred, either remove the statement from your notebook or make an annotation about the disposition of the account.
Photocopies of any stock certificates or bonds for which you have the actual certificates or bonds, including all stock split certificates. For stocks held in “dividend reinvestment plans” (DRIPs), a copy of the most recent account statement from the transfer agent for each account.
Safety deposit box
If you have a safety deposit box, include the location of the box, who has access, and consider a current list of contents or box inventory.
Where are the originals of your Will and any Trusts?
Include the identity and location of your original estate planning documents such as your last will and testament and any codicils, and trusts for which you are the grantor, trustee, or beneficiary.
A copy of your living will and health care power of attorney (or Georgia advance directive for health care) should be included in your notebook along with the location of the originals. In South Carolina, the living will is called a declaration of desire for natural death. Also include the location of your durable power of attorney or financial power of attorney, and any designation or nomination of guardian.
Insurance – life and disability
For life or disability insurance, record the name of the issuing company, the policy number, and include a copy of the policy “declaration page” or summary sheet in your notebook. Note the location of the original documents and any helpful points of contact.
If you have family members living overseas or geographically dispersed, it might be helpful to list their addresses and contact information. If you have a deceased spouse or child, include a death certificate.
Are there are others who should be notified if you die? Do you have responsibilities to third parties or charitable organizations? Are you a guardian or trustee or attorney-in-fact for someone else?
What if I own a business and I die or am incapacitated?
If you own a business or are self employed you will need to include information in your notebook such as how to access your accounts payable and receivable, information about work in progress and customer or client information. What would need to happen if you died suddenly or were disabled?
Business succession and estate planning information
Your personal estate planning documents are probably insufficient to deal with a business, especially if you operate as a corporation, LLC, or partnership. Your executor or heirs need to have proof of your ownership and rights to the business. They also need copies of any shareholder agreements or buy-sell agreements.
Anyone acting on behalf of your business after you die, or once you become incapacitated, must have proper legal authority in order to access business bank accounts or take other action on behalf of the business. Proper planning for business succession or disability is critically important if your family depends on income from your business. An estate planning and business attorney can help identify and address your specific business needs. Business owners frequently are “too busy” to plan for such contingencies. Take the time necessary to plan for your possible death or disability.
Copies of Last Will and Testament and any Trusts?
You may want to include an information copy of some, or all, planning documents in your estate planning notebook. This will depend in part on whether you have transparency with the individuals who might see your notebook from time to time. Remember that your heirs would need the original documents to act, so don’t lose track of the location of your originals, and be certain to record this information. If you have concerns that a document might “disappear” or be destroyed by someone displeased with the content, speak with your attorney about ways to safeguard your document. Good planning makes for good results.
Real property whether owned individually, jointly, or in trust
List any real properties in which you own an interest, including address, county, state, country. List the names of any co-owners. If property is owned by a trust, list the name of the trust and the location of the trust document. A photocopy of the actual warranty deed to each property is ideal; it will help your advisors confirm whether the property is titled individually, joint with rights of survivorship, in joint tenancy, or owned by an entity such as a business or limited partnership.
If you have information about the tax basis for any specific property or investment, include that information or documentation or its location.
Loans and promissory note documents and payment info
If you have loaned money to family members or others, include copies of loan documents such as signed promissory notes, and a record of any payments received. Also, make sure your last will and testament or trust is clear if you consider certain transfers or gifts to your children as advances against their inheritance. Your estate planning attorney can help you accomplish your goals with appropriate documents.
Password and login for email and social media
For email accounts, online “cloud” repositories, bank or investment accounts, and all social media accounts, your estate planning notebook should probably include your login information including current passwords. This information must be preserved somewhere. Your executor, trustee, or heirs will need access to this information if you die. Your loved ones might need this information if you are incapacitated. Be sure to keep this list current, since we all change passwords frequently.
Protect the security of your information — weigh the risks
How do you keep information in your estate planning notebook safe? As you have undoubtedly recognized, a person with the information in your notebook could potentially wreak havoc with your estate — or loot your accounts using your passwords. As a result, you must consider this security risk when creating and managing your estate planning notebook — and weigh the benefits of collecting and storing this information against the risks inherent in having the information assembled in one place. You can brainstorm with your lawyer and loved ones about security measures appropriate for your family’s information.
Family considerations in sharing estate planning information
While it would be most excellent if all families had only mature, responsible, reliable, and trustworthy members, that is not always the case. Most families have a strained or broken relationship, sibling rivalries, an immature or irresponsible member, or other family dynamic that should be taken into account in estate planning. Your estate plan is YOURS, so don’t let your kids or other family members pressure you into planning decisions you don’t like. The contents of your estate planning documents (if not the location) may need to remain totally private until after your death, depending on your individual circumstances. Family issues are important when deciding where to safeguard your original documents and with whom to share the information described in this article. Sometimes a trusted friend or advisor plays a role in safeguarding your information.
Second marriages – blended families – special needs information
Second marriages and blended families will have additional issues to consider, not only in the estate planning process but also in information collection, storage, and sharing. Families with a special needs member may want to add a narrative to their notebook with helpful information about the special needs individual and his or her likes, dislikes, challenges, strengths, and sources of joy. This could be enormously important under the right circumstances.
Once you create your estate planning notebook, please keep it up to date. If you don’t, unnecessary confusion or suspicion amongst family members might be the result. I recommend updating your estate planning notebook quarterly; put it on your calendar “to do” list. You will be surprised how often things change and how easy updates are, once you have the notebook in place. You may even find yourself addressing issues you have avoided once you begin this process!
Copyright Karen S. Hindson, Hindson & Melton LLC – February 2, 2014, updated February 3, 2017