What would happen if you were injured in an automobile accident, incapacitated by a stroke, or the victim of an airplane crash? Would your family be able to find the information they need to handle your affairs? For most Americans the answer would be, "No!"

Most people put off until too late organizing important documents that will be needed if they die or become incapacitated. However, Solomon said, "The prudent sees the evil and hides [prepares] himself, but the naïve go on, and are punished for it" (Proverbs 22:3). Wise men and women leave their survivors with organized, readily accessible, yet safely protected, records. So, it is advisable to pull together and to organize all important papers and documents now—before the need arises (even if it means writing a new will and/or trust)—and tell at least one trustworthy family member or close friend where all papers and documents can be found.

Legal documents
There are a number of legal documents that your family will need to settle your estate or in case of your incapacitation.

  • Your will. Your original will should be left with the attorney who drafted it. Make sure the attorney has a fireproof vault or bank vault and has a good index of wills. A copy of the will should be kept in a safe place at your home with the attorney's name, address, and phone number printed on the front of the will; and a second copy should be entrusted to a family member or friend. Because many states do not allow immediate access to personal safe deposit boxes after the death of the depositor, wills should not be kept in safe deposit boxes. 
  • Letters of instruction. Letters expressing funeral wishes, distribution wishes of personal items (such as jewelry, tools, or sporting equipment), and listing the location of all critical papers and documents should be kept with the original will, as well as with each copy of the will. Also listed in that location-of-critical-papers letter should be the location of any safe deposit boxes. Write a separate letter to your attorney, surviving spouse, will executor, and a trusted friend or family member and tell them the location of the safety deposit box key. 
  • Durable power of attorney. Give a signed copy of the power of attorney to the person named to act on your behalf in financial matters if you become unable to do so. Also give a signed copy to your attorney, to a trusted family member or friend, and keep a copy in a safe place in your home—preferably accompanying your copy of the will.
  • Trusts. If you've set up a living trust, the original paperwork should be kept with your attorney. A copy of the trust should be kept in a safe place at home, and copies should be given to all co-trustees and to the successor trustee.
  • Health care proxy and living will. If there are written instructions that express the kind of treatment you desire if a medical condition prevents you from writing or speaking, make sure these instructions are kept in a safe but easily accessible place in your home. In addition, give a copy of the health care proxy and living will to the person you have named to speak on your behalf, your attorney, a trusted family member, and your family physician. 
  • Medical information. In addition to a health care proxy and living will, there needs to be kept in a safe place written information explaining any special medical conditions or allergies, types and dosage of medication taken, and a record of illnesses or hospitalizations within the previous five years. Your family physician, a family member, and the attorney should keep copies. 
  • Other papers. Be sure that your family knows where to find (1) your old tax records; (2) copies of leases or rental agreements; (3) mortgages, loans, and promissory notes (paid and outstanding, institutional or private); (4) insurance policies, including life, health care, Medicare (or any other Medigap coverage), and long-term care; (5) bank account records, including canceled checks and savings account records; (6) prepaid funeral and/or burial arrangement documents; (7) Social Security benefits records; (8) military records including discharge papers; (9) stock or mutual funds performance documents and annual statements; and (10) the guardianship designation of minor children in the case of the death of both spouses. The location of these critical papers should be listed in the letters of instruction kept with all copies of your will.
Assets
Make a detailed list of assets and states where documents relating to assets can be found. The original list should be kept in a safe place in your home or in a safe deposit box. Copies should be given to your attorney, will executor, trust trustee, and a trusted friend or family member. Include the following in your list of assets.

  • Retirement accounts. Include account numbers, beneficiary designations, and company(ies) where retirement funds are invested. 
  • Bank accounts. Include name of bank(s), account numbers, type of accounts, branch locations, debit card numbers, credit card numbers (all credit cards—not just the ones issued by the bank), date account was opened, the name of a bank officer.
  • Brokerage accounts. Include name and phone number of brokerage firm or brokerage contact person, branch locations, name of investment funds with account numbers, and date of initial purchase(s).
  • Deeds, titles, and certificates. Include stock certificate numbers, bond series numbers, automobile and motor vehicle title numbers, and property and real estate deed numbers.
  • Outstanding loans and debts. Include the name of company, institution, issuer of credit, or individual to whom money is owed, amount of initial loan, account numbers if any, and approximate balance of each. These will likely have to be repaid as part of the estate settlement.
  • Life insurance information. Include names of insurance companies, account numbers, type of insurance, amount of coverage, date of issue, and any special consideration (such as double indemnity for accidental death).
  • A family tree. These include names of immediate family members for both spouses for at least one past generation.
  • Vital records. Include individual birth certificate and birth certificates of family members, death certificates of family members, marriage records, baptismal records, and individual passport information. 
  • Personal assets. Include all personal items, including serial numbers if available; approximate date of acquisition; and approximate value. These would include electronic equipment, firearms, household accessories, clothing, jewelry, books or works of art, and so on.
Personal advisors
Make a list of all professionals that you use or choose to use and keep the list with the original and all copies of your will. A trusted friend or family member should keep an additional copy. Include the name, address, and phone number (also include e-mail address is applicable) of the following.

  • Attorney. The attorney who drew up your will (or an attorney of your choosing if the attorney who drew up the will is deceased, incapacitated, or no longer in business). 
  • Accountant. Copies of old tax records can be kept with your accountant.
  • Insurance agent. Name of company(ies) and agent(s).
  • Financial planner
  • Employee benefits person or department if you are (were) employed
  • Family physician and all other preferred doctors
  • Spiritual leader
Conclusion
If you have not compiled this information, it needs to be done as soon as possible. As Benjamin Franklin said in Maxims Prefixed to Poor Richard's Almanac, "Never leave that till tomorrow which you can do today." This advice is especially true if you are planning to take a trip or are facing surgery. If you have not prepared, begin today. "Do not boast about tomorrow; for you do not know what a day may bring forth" (Proverbs 27:1). If you have organized your papers, you are to be commended, but make sure you update the information at least yearly.