Steps to Organize Your Estate Planning Documents

Posted By T. Lee Sherbakoff, CPA/PFS, CFP® on May 27, 2020


Steps to Organize Your Estate Planning Documents

From Lee Sherbakoff,
The Nalls Sherbakoff Group, LLC.

Dear Friends,

During stay-at-home mandates and the slow reopening, here’s a home project that will not benefit you in any way, but for sure will be tremendously appreciated by those you leave behind. When we talk to our clients about estate planning, some folks get a little bit anxious and may be quick to change the subject. However, putting in the time and effort outlined below, you’ll be making it easier for your family and loved ones, and those you rely on as fiduciaries, for decades to come. Not only is this simple, but it may could save thousands of dollars in fees and many hours of frustration!

If you’re like most people, you don’t have an organized collection of all your key legal documents listed below. Often, even we as your advisors may have documents needing updating, so this process may be beneficial to us as well. We don’t want this to be a source of worry for you, but would like to encourage you to simply get the process started.

Ten Steps

  1. Copy the list of documents below. While you could delete items that may not be relevant, it would be better to write “None” or “Not applicable” after those. That will clarify for anyone trying to help you that the documents don’t exist. Then, tailor any item listed to your situation. For example, if you have several trusts, list the name of each on your legal document master list. If you have three individual retirement accounts and hence three beneficiary designations, indicate the three accounts under “Beneficiary Designations.”
  2. Locate the hard copy (original) of the documents, place a check mark on the item on your list and search your computer (or an email from your attorney) for a digital version, if applicable. Make sure both are the fully executed version (they have been signed and notarized, if required)!
  3. If you already have a digital version, create a folder on your home laptop called “Estate Documents.” Create a desktop shortcut to this folder. Next, create sub-folders for each category such as health, property deeds and life insurance policies. (Author’s note: This step may require you to enlist the help of your kids or grandkids.)
  4. If you don’t have a digital version of a document, scan the hard copy and save the digital version directly to the folder you just created. Be sure to clearly name the file to make it easier to locate (example: Jane’s Will 2020, or Jack’s DPOA 2020).
  5. Place the hard copy in a clearly labeled envelope(s) and then into a fireproof home safe or file cabinet. Be sure to provide the location of the keys or combo to the safe to your spouse, trusted family member or friend, and key fiduciaries (for example, your executor).
  6. Back up the folder you just created to the “Cloud.” This could be Dropbox, iCloud, OneDrive or whichever cloud service you use. Test it for remote access availability by logging on to your cloud service a day or so later to see if you can find it. Saving to the cloud will allow the documents to be accessible from anywhere at any time and even if your laptop is gone. Yes, this will require you to remember your username and password to your cloud service! You probably should have a password keeper (an app of some sort, for all the many passwords and account names you have, so add this one).
  7. Repeat for your family members who count on you to help them with their legal matters such as your spouse, parents or children.  If you’re responsible for helping an elderly aunt, for example, you need a copy of the power of attorney for financial matters and for health care decision-making. Otherwise, your ability to help could be limited or prevented.
  8. Consider sharing the link to your documents with your financial team (including lawyer, CPA, financial planner, insurance consultant and trust officer).
  9. Share your living will with your primary care physician and have the “tough” discussion with your health care Power of Attorney.
  10. Finally, READ all your documents to determine if they still meet your wishes.  If not, or if you’re worried that they’re too old, contact your lawyer to work on new ones, along with the ones that are missing and relevant to you. If you find your attorney that prepared your documents all those years ago has retired, let us know and we can provide you with a list of local attorneys we work with.

Document List

Note: The required legal documents will vary by state. Check with your attorney to make sure you have all the ones needed where you live.

  • Beneficiary designation forms for every retirement account, insurance policy, annuity, etc.
  • Will
  • Revocable trusts
  • Power of attorney (for financial matters)
  • Irrevocable trusts
  • Health care proxy
  • Living will
  • HIPAA release (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act)
  • DNR (Do Not Resuscitate)
  • POLST (Physician Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment) 
  • Deed for each property owned
  • Governing documents for any business entity: partnership agreements, shareholder agreements, operating agreements and buy/sell agreements.
  • Life insurance policies and beneficiary designation confirmed by company
  • Disability insurance policies
  • Long term-care insurance policies
  • Beneficiary designation confirmed by retirement sponsor

If the project takes more time than anticipated, just proceed ahead at whatever pace works for you. As you proceed with this project, you should periodically update the legal document master list, if appropriate.

Our shoutout to you is, “Don’t give up! Your heirs and executor will thank you.”

But it’s really even more, when age or health issues make it harder for you to handle your own financial and legal affairs, you will be grateful for having undertaken this effort.

Stay safe and call, text, or email us with any questions or concerns.

The Nalls Sherbakoff Group, LLC

DISCLOSURES: The information provided in this letter is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered an individualized recommendation of any particular security, strategy or investment product, and should not be construed as investment, legal, or tax advice. The Nalls Sherbakoff Group, LLC makes no warranties with regard to the information or results obtained by third parties and its use and disclaim any liability arising out of, or reliance on the information. These indexes reflect investments for a limited period of time and do not reflect performance in different economic or market cycles and are not intended to reflect the actual outcomes of any client of The Nalls Sherbakoff Group, LLC. Past performance does not guarantee future results.