According to the American Bar Association, about 55 percent of Americans die without a will – the essential document that protects your family from the legal complications and in-fighting that can follow a death.
But even a will may not encompass all the information you need to impart to your family. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of paperwork used to track your existence. Even as you move to a more self-sufficient lifestyle, a paper trail will follow you; it’s a feature of the modern age.
Don’t be the only member of your family who knows how to keep your home and lifestyle operating, your wishes in case of death, or where the family jewels are hidden. Prepare a spreadsheet with the following information, and store it in a fireproof safe or other secure location (making sure everyone knows where to find it).
1. Family identification. Document the location of the birth certificates and passports for all members of the family, as well as Social Security numbers, medical information, adoption records, marriage and death certificates, birth dates and legal names.
2. Contacts. Make a contact page for family members and close friends, legal professionals, insurance companies, financial advisors, and anyone else who has been responsible for maintaining your records.
3. Assets. Detail all assets, such as real estate, vehicles and valuable items. Be sure to list specific information as appropriate, such as serial numbers, Vehicle Identification Numbers and the location of deeds for property. Don’t forget to list financial assets, including bank accounts, investments, stocks and bonds.
4. Liabilities. Maintain updated records for loan information and amounts, credit cards, mortgage and personal lending. Be sure to include specific information about agreements as well as the location of documentation.
5. Insurance. Quick access to personal, medical and property insurance policy numbers can speed the company’s ability to provide you with the insurance payments needed to quickly bounce back in an emergency. Make sure you, your spouse, and your next of kin all know the location of and value on insurance policies.
6. Bills. After an emergency or death, bills for items and services purchased earlier will still be owed. Include the account numbers for utility companies, payment information as well as frequency of billing, and the details of any agreements. Contact numbers for billing companies can help your family stop unwanted services before becoming inundated with bills.
7. Emergency plan. Make an account of your family’s plans in case of emergency, upheaval or accident. Determine a meeting place and detail the location of emergency supplies. Make sure even the youngest children have been prepared to find shelter, basic supplies and the rest of the family so they will know how to react if things become chaotic, and practice relevant drills at least once per year.
8. Final arrangements. A will and living trust are necessary for helping your family make decisions in case of your death or incapacitation. All adult family members should have a legal will, as well as written instructions for any actions desired in case of death. This is particularly important in families with children or other dependents, in order to provide for their future and indicate who should be responsible for their safety. Be certain to discuss your plans and desires with close family members and entrust them with your wishes.
9. Homestead journal. Update regular seasonal logs about what you do to your property, how the homestead is made to be productive, plans for future development, and the location of needed equipment and supplies. Enter relevant information about livestock and pets, as well, including veterinary records, pedigrees and directives for ensuring their health. If you do not plan to have your next of kin run your homestead in the event of your death, a detailed plan about how to divide and liquidate assets should be included in your will.
There are many resources available online to help you prepare your “in case of emergency” document. The US Department of Health and Human Services provides a list as a jumping-off point.
Prepare and store the document digitally and in hard-copy, talk over your plans, and make sure everyone understands where to find the information. Providing your family with the tools to pick up the pieces in a worst-case scenario is a realistic approach to guaranteeing their continued prosperity and safety. Don’t leave them stranded.
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