Preparing Your Information for Disaster

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Office: binders.  Photo by sidewalk flying.My grandmother passed away a month ago and, frankly, I’m still reeling from it in some ways. She was a daily part of my life for my entire childhood, a regular phone companion, and a person I visited (at least) monthly, even though she lived four hours away.

My mother took the loss even worse, especially since she was the one charged with taking care of my grandmother’s affairs in the days after her passing. Unfortunately, we came to find out that my grandmother’s papers and information were incredibly poorly organized, with my mother finally resorting to digging through boxes of old papers and calling numbers just to put the pieces together.

With such organization, it was really clear that my grandmother’s financial organization relied entirely on her ongoing health and sharp state of mind. If she had fallen into poor health, either physical or mental, it would have been impossible for someone to step in and take care of her affairs. In her passing, she left a lot of confusing papers in her wake, adding up to a lot of painful hours for the people left behind, sifting through all of this information to take care of such things.

After this experience, I realized that I never want my family – my wife, my children, my parents, or anyone else – to wind up in this situation. I resolved to go far beyond my old master information document and create a resource that my family could turn to in any painful situation – my loss of life, my loss of good mental or physical health, and the potential loss of our property in a disaster.

I’ve been collecting all of this information in a binder of my own design. I took a serious look at several prepackaged solutions for this type of situation – Life.doc, Know Where You Are, and several others – but all of them failed in some respect. They left out something I considered important. They weren’t customizable enough. I couldn’t just print off more forms. So, I decided to assemble my own.

What follows is a detailed description of the document I’m still assembling with enough detail that you could easily make your own. My advice? Copy and paste all of the text below into a Microsoft Word document, then start filling in the blanks. I would turn each section into a big header – perhaps on its own page – so that it’s easy to find, and I’d use separators to keep the sections apart.

If you have the same kind of worries that I do, assembling this binder will take a big load off of your mind.

Ready to dive in? Let’s get started.

What You Need
To assemble this, you’ll need several items.

A three-ring binder Since you’ll be moving pages around, a three ring binder is the best way to go. Although you may save this documentation electronically, you’ll want to have a hard copy sitting in a safe place (like in a deposit box at a bank) so that you can turn to it in times of need.

A computer with a printer This is optional, but highly worthwhile. Recording all this information in an electronic fashion makes it much easier to make updates later.

A three-hole puncher This makes it easy to punch holes in the pages so that they’ll easily fit in the binder.

Dividers You’ll want 15 to 20 section dividers for the binder to make it easy to flip to the place you want.

A camera, preferably a digital one You’ll likely need to take pictures of many of your items. A digital camera makes this quite easy, though a film-based one fills the need, too.

A writing utensil and some notebook paper As you prepare this document, you’re going to take a lot of notes along the way. Be prepared.

Plenty of time This will take quite a long time to assemble. Don’t expect to do it all in an hour or even in an afternoon.

A Basic Emergency Plan
Every family should have an emergency plan. Where will you meet in times of disaster? What key people do you need to call? What key items should be extracted from the home? Where are the shut-off valves in your home? It’s worth your effort to start this process by developing a simple emergency plan and keeping a copy of it in your home as well as in this binder. Here’s what you should include.

Immediate emergency plan Identify two locations where you will meet in the event of an emergency. One place should be about 500 feet from your home. The other place should be a location outside your town that all family members can easily locate – say, the home of a grandparent. That way, all of you know where to go if there’s a disaster at your home – or a disaster in your area.

Emergency item list You have five minutes. What do you grab out of your home? Spend some time thinking about this and make a list of five or so items that you (or family members) could quickly grab in the event of a disaster. Old photos, a backup hard drive, and a portable safe might be good things to list.

Household shut-down information What do you need to do to effectively “shut down” your home? Know where the turn-off is for the gas and the water and note them here, as well as fire extinguisher locations. If you keep emergency food or water stored somewhere in your home, note that here, too. If you have a burglar alarm in your home, make a note of this, too, as well as any plans you have related to that (such as calling an alarm phone).

Three (or more) emergency contacts Who should be contacted in the event of an emergency? You should have their contact information at the ready, particularly every possible phone number for them. Good people to consider for this role include your parents, your siblings, your lifelong friends, and your pastor/clergy.

Who possesses keys for your home? Keep a list of the people who have keys to your home/automobiles, as well as their contact information. If you keep a key hidden outside, I would not note this in the document.

Key contacts You should keep a list of key contacts – work, school, and organizations where you (or your spouse) hold leadership positions are good to note here. You should also include contact information for your primary care physicians.

Key Information About Each Family Member
You should maintain some basic information for each person who is dependent on you – you, your spouse, your children, and any other people who you’re responsible for (such as disabled or elderly relatives). What information is worthwhile for each person?

Key personal information Full legal name and birth date should be recorded as a minimum. Social Security number is optional – it could be very useful, but it’s also something of a security risk. Perhaps just write it on the copy stored in the safe at the bank.

Home, work, and school addresses, phone numbers, and emails In other words, the most complete contact information you can assemble for each person.

Key work contacts Such information as your work identification number(s), your department at work, and any other key data from your job should go here. You should also note the name and contact information for your work supervisor, any key assistants or subordinates that you have, a human resource contact, and a pension/401(k)/403(b) contact. If the person is a student, contact information for the school and any school identification numbers are key.

Health insurance information Make absolutely sure you have health insurance information for each person – the policy number, the provider, and contact information for the provider.

Medication list What medications is the person actively taking? What dosages? What pharmacies? What doctor(s) prescribed the medication?

Diseases or other health concerns A simple list of the diseases and other major medical conditions of the person is useful, as is an allergy list. Blood type can also be useful, as can whether or not the person is an organ donor.

Complete physician and pharmacy list with contacts Every doctor that a person sees on any regular basis should be noted (name, specialty, contact information).

Other medical history A medical history can also be useful in a medical emergency, such as surgeries and past conditions.

Copy of will, living will, power of attorney, trust documentation A copy of all of these documents is useful. These can be photocopies, as long as the location of certified versions is identified.

Details on All Insurance Policies
For each policy that you have of any kind, make a list of the insurance type, the insurance company (and contact info), the policy number, the agent’s name, and the agent’s phone number. A copy of the policies can also be useful, but at the very least, you should jot down a quick summary of each policy under the contact information.

Types of insurance to remember: homeowners’ insurance, automobile insurance, renters’ insurance, other property insurance, life insurance, health insurance, dental insurance, disability insurance, long term care insurance, liability insurance, pet insurance, and mortgage insurance. There may be others.

Details on All Accounts
A complete listing of all of your accounts is essential.

Banks You should maintain a list of all banks where you or anyone in your family holds an account. You may want to note account holders as well. Account information is optional here – I would perhaps write it in by hand on the copy in the safe, but not keep it electronically.

Investment accounts The same information should apply to all investment accounts, retirement or otherwise. This includes pensions and any other potential sources of income.

Key property title locations The location of the titles of all homes and automobiles you or your spouse own is useful.

Legal partnerships A list of all legal partnerships that the person is involved with is vital, along with a contact person for each one.

Key financial personnel Contact information for your accountant, your stock broker, and/or your financial planner(s) is key here.

Mortgage and other debts A full list of every organization with which you hold a debt is also useful.

Credit cards Keep a list of every bank with which you have a credit card, as well as the phone number for that card. Don’t include the account numbers – they’re not necessary and are a bit of a security risk.

Real estate holdings A full list of your real estate holdings is very useful, along with the location of any and all deeds.

Legal representation You should also have contact information for your lawyer.

Location of other legal documents Depending on your situation, you may need to note other legal documents of importance. You may want to note the location of any birth certificates, adoption papers, custody agreements, divorce agreements, military papers, lease documentation, passports, real estate deeds, pre-nupital agreements, marriage licenses, wills, trusts, living wills, contracts, powers of attorney documents, and any other contracts that may be relevant.

You can include copies of any of these as you see fit, but you should keep all of the original documents gathered somewhere (preferably in a safe in a bank).

Service Providers
This piece is simple. Every business or individual that provides a service to you should have their contact information listed in a central place (so that they can quickly be contacted to postpone or eliminate services).

Services to remember: your child’s caregiver, your housekeeper, your baby sitter, your pet sitter, your gardener, your pool maintenance company, your gas company, your telephone company, your cell phone provider, your electric company, your cable provider, your garbageman, your lawn service, your pest control service, your computer repairman, your building superintendent or landlord, your alarm services, your cleaning services, and any other services you might have.

A Thorough Inventory of Your Possessions
This will perhaps be the most time consuming part of all. For insurance purposes, it’s incredibly useful to have a thorough inventory of all of the possessions in your home (and elsewhere). Here’s the exact procedure I would follow.

First, make a list of every room in your house, all external buildings, and any other key locations where there’s a significant amount of your property. This is essentially a location checklist, to make sure every place where you have property is accounted for. Don’t forget the attic or the basement or the shed in the back!

Next, go to each of these rooms/locations and make a careful list of all of the items with significant value in the room. Don’t worry about specifics – just make sure you’ve actually noted all of the valuable items in the room. It’s more important to hit all the big things than to get bogged down in items worth just a dollar or two that prevent you from ever getting this done, so I propose a rule of thumb: only note things with a value of $20 or more. If you want to note more items, come back later and do this again, but don’t write down the items on the first time through if the value is that low.

Don’t forget drawers, jewelry boxes, under beds, in closets, or other such locations that are easy to overlook. Take your time with this process.

Once you have this big list of possessions, document it as much as possible. Write down any serial numbers you can identify. Take photos of as many items as possible (including large collections, like books, DVDs, and so on). If you have a digital camera, this isn’t a problem – thoroughly document your items. Make estimates as to the value of the items. For larger items (anything worth more than, say, $100), note the date and place of purchase, the purchase price, and keep a copy of the receipt (you can scan the receipt and save it in the document if you wnat).

This will take a long time. Don’t sweat it. Take your time and do it right.

Updating Your Document
I recommend several avenues for maintaining and updating the document.

First, keep both an electronic and a hard copy of the document in a safe place. I recommend keeping them in a safe deposit box at your bank. Keep the electronic copy on a CD or on a memory stick.

Second, update your local copy of the document electronically every time you notice a change. You can print off updates for each change if you like, but don’t sweat it too much.

Every six months or so, review the document carefully for changes. Add new possessions and remove ones that have been sold or given away. Then, print out any updated pages and replace them in the binder that’s in your safe deposit box, as well as replacing the electronic copy.

You’ll Be Glad You Did It
Even aside from the peace of mind that will come from having this document, there will come some point in your life where having all of this information at hand will come in handy – your house burns down, or your spouse passes away suddenly. During those times of crisis, having all of this data available easily to you will make all the difference in the world, taking a healthy dose of stress away from that painful and challenging moment.

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58 thoughts on “Preparing Your Information for Disaster

  1. An excellent plan! I have one binder for me and one for my boy — although his contains mostly school-related paperwork at the moment, its a good habit for him to develop. I suggest a ZIPPERED binder that you can ‘shove the papers’ into if you need to leaving the planning for a while as well as the inclusion of some document protectors for some documents which may store easier that way.

  2. My wife & I have been beating around the bush regarding our disaster preparation plan. I will undoubtedly use the information you have compiled here to bring our emergency information together the way it needs to be. I will also encourage my family members to do the same.

    One important ingredient to include when setting out to complete these tasks is fortitude. Goals should be set so milestones can be achieved slowly but surely. This will help to avoid burn out, stress, & overwhelm in general.

    It is also incredibly important & helpful to view this binder is a “living document” that needs constant updating, just like our budgets.

    I will speak with my wife soon to set a date of completion for our binder. We will sit down and forumlate our goals, set our milestones, then just faithfully work on the small individual tasks that will steadily lead toward completion and piece of mind.

    Thanks for this, it truly is an excellent resource.

  3. Hi Trent!
    Terrific article! Just wanted to add an additional tip: I live in Northern California and am single. To plan for the possibility of a devastating earthquake, I also send a copy of the CD with the data on it to a trusted relative (password protected of course) in another state, in case my copies here are destroyed or are not accessible.
    Thanks for this article.

  4. “Good people to consider for this role [emergency contact] include your parents, your siblings, your lifelong friends, and your pastor/clergy.”

    Think a little more broadly. We are in our late 50s. All four parents are dead. Siblings are either much older and very ill, or are estranged to the point of no contact. Neither of us has kept in touch with any “lifelong friends.” No pastor, no church, no clergy. We are the contact people for our children and their families, who look to us for guidance and rescue in case of emergency.

    Quis custōdiet ipsōs custōdēs?

  5. Thanks, I needed the boot in the behind. Getting info from my husband regarding work stuff is torture to say the least. I’ve asked him several times for phone numbers, names of his supers, email addresses etc in case something bad happens (knock on wood) and he’s in the hospital on life support or something worse. He’s just not a big ‘plan ahead’ kind of guy for this stuff, doesn’t see the need for it. He’s great at day-to-day things which is why he handles the daily/monthly finances (because I’m not good at it) and I take care of the federal/state/local income taxes.

  6. Kate,
    I would give one password protected copy to one of my more responsible children or put one in a safe deposit box in a bank.

    we are in the process of doing this…fortitude and planning is right.

    also include a section on your death. I and my husband want to be donated to science and then cremated. We have what we want documented. A little depressing to think about but it came up when we were doing living wills and medical PoA papers. Similar planning made my grandpa’s death less of a emotional trauma for my mom. She didn’t have to try to make funeral arrangements while grieving.

  7. The turning point for me was Hurr. Katrina. I was living in Memphis and we had many evacuees come our way. It was sad to see people just like me with 2 cars packed with stuff they thought they’d need for the weekend which turned out to be the only material things they had left in the world. It made me realize how unimportant most all of my stuff was and it made me get my emergency list together. I’ve done many of the things you’ve listed, but I need to go back and re-do some things and update them.

    My biggest fear is fire. Fire can sweep you out of your home at a moments notice. So I have a fireproof box in my basement with many of the materials you’ve listed above. But fire can also give you some warning. As a child we had forest fires in our area. We got prepared by putting everything we wanted to take in a central area of the house as soon as we knew about the fires. It turned out to be a good thing because when we got the evacuation call my mother was home alone, she threw all those things in her colossal 73 Buick and got the hell out – it rained our house survived.

    But even when I lived in a densely packed residential area in Memphis I paid attention to fire. No matter what time of night if I heard fire trucks stopping near my house I went outside to locate the fire. I saw many neighboring home damaged or destroyed by fires in neighboring houses or businesses.

    But what is important besides ownership documents for insurance purposes? Family items – pictures, heirlooms, the irreplaceable. You can go buy another toothbrush or some underwear or clothes. You can’t replace your grandmother’s wedding ring or your great grandmother’s silver service. If I have time in a disaster that the stuff I’m taking once the insurance papers are packed.

  8. Another idea: maybe the off-site back-up can be part of a regular computer back-up service. So whether your computer dies or your house burns down – you just access the files from the website of this 3rd party that’s automatically saved your computer on a weekly basis or so. Seems easier than having to go to the bank and back every now and then.

    I’m sure there’s lots of companies that do this – I’m familiar with carbonite.com – but haven’t used them (intend to).

  9. As long as you’re doing this, go ahead & put your wishes in case of medical emergency and your funeral preferences, and if you belong to any online communities, your username/password. So someone can announce on the blog that you’ve died, if it comes to that.

    My mom did this with her property, contacts (lawyer, broker, etc.) and also the hymns & Bible passages she wants read at her funeral, plus identical copies of her will. All the kids have copies. If something happens to her, we all have the same information – no arguments, no competing value judgements, just a list of chores she left to us.

  10. Great idea, but terrifying. It’s like an instruction book for someone to steal not only your identity, but your whole family’s.

  11. Bravo! This is so important. I learned the same thing when my mom died years ago and I just had to wait to hear from creditors, doctors etc. I had/have no idea if we ever covered all the bases.
    So, it made me come home and do just what you are prescribing. We leave this info with our kids whenever my husband and I travel together just in case we both croak at the same time. A little morbid sounding, but we don’t want them to be stuck not knowing where things are.
    The family emergency plan is great too. Thanks for all the info!

  12. Wow Trent. I did about half the things you listed here already, after I had my will drawn up. I don’t know why, a couple years ago I just decided spontaneously to get the will done, even though I was healthy and under 40. A break-in and subsequent insurance follow-up made me realise that I should better document my belongings, because some insurance companies won’t pay up unless you have extensive documentation (serial numbers at a minimum). Common sense I think. Security risk perhaps, but the document is for “safekeeping”, so…

  13. Dang, Trent – this may be your best post in a long time! (not to disparage any of your posts – just that this one is incredibly valuable)

    A friend of mine had to deal with her brother’s estate and property upon his sudden death. Based on her stories, I do not want any one to have to go through that for any reason. GREAT advice and tools here – thanks for doing this!

  14. I might add that I would include many of my online accounts username/passwords for quick access if needed – or at least identify how to get the login info if needed.

  15. I might add that I would include many of my online accounts username/passwords for quick access if needed – or at least identify how to get the login info if needed.

  16. Trent – Thanks so much for this! I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with the loss. It’s very timely for us as well, my husband’s having to deal with this for his grandparents. His grandmother was the organized one, and once she passed 6 months ago, everything ended up in chaos. We’re now tasked with the difficult job of searching for any current accounts, assets, etc. I’m determined not to leave a mess like that for someone else to handle, and this will give me a great start on it.

  17. This is an excellent post! I’m a big proponent of being prepared and planning ahead. Your recommendations will help everyone in their time of need, when their minds are elsewhere.

  18. Kate #5: “We are in our late 50s….We are the contact people for our children and their families, who look to us for guidance and rescue in case of emergency.”

    Kate, isn’t it time to teach your grown children to be the contact people for one another and for you?

  19. What great information. A friend of our is dealing with the loss of a very close friend’s sudden death this weekend. She was 35. It’s never too early to think about this stuff. We are in our early 30′s with young children. We, so far, haven’t done any of the things you list. This, combined with our friends sudden loss, has been a good “kick in the pants”.

  20. I can’t say enough good things about the Mozy @ home backup service. We’ve been using it for years with no issues. $5/month for unlimited backup, and it understands “incremental” backups, so after the initial (likely big) upload, additional ones are completed very quickly.

    The biggest benefit, though, is that this backup happens automatically. You select the folders you want to back up and the software runs daily. Make a folder for these important documents and you never have to worry about them being backed up again — when you change them, they will be updated on the backup within 24 hours. People talk all the time about automating their finances — you should automate your backup or it won’t happen. Also, hard drives, CD’s and binders can easily be destroyed in the event of a flood, fire, tornado or earthquake.

    You should, of course, have the binder, but make the binder a derivative source of this information — NOT the source. Keep the source electronic and update the binder as things change.

  21. Trent,
    Bravo for doing this article. SOOOO many people of all ages need to do this, but have not. Everyone thinks it’s only “seniors” who need to do it, but we all do, no matter age or life circumstances.

    FYI: You mention about having copies of power of attorney, etc. available.

    The real issue is getting people to DO these. You would be shocked at how many people of all ages, including those with young children, do not.

    In some cases, family members refuse to do this or huge fights develop (people seem to think you want them dead or want their “stuff” when you just bring up the importance of a POA and will, etc.). It’s a whole series of articles unto itself.

    As someone who lives alone and whose friends are all over the globe (literally) with no real family, I have been doing what you outlined today to prepare infor for them to access if/when needed.

    I, too, feel as you do that I don’t want loved ones to have to spend weeks trying to make sense of things.

    It is, of course, a lot of work to keep this stuff updated. Also, like others, a lot of things(online payments, account management, etc.) I do via computer and the password access is so blasted complicated (some seem to come up automatically, some can only be accessed in one browser and not another, some require turning off the AntiVirus software, etc.)and time-consuming

    Becoming incapacitated and not having communicated how to deal with your personal stuff is actually far worse than when you die (Having gone thru this with my mother this year, I can honestly say that dealing with the issues of those who are seriously ill and/or dying is much more complicated than all of the stuff surrounding a death, although all are time-consuming, and problematic if the individual has not granted power of attorney and a health care proxy.)

    Clayton:
    You’re not the only person to be concerned about the security of this info.

    We keep a copy on a special flash drive that is given to two different friends and also one “hard” copy. Yes, we do worry but we worry more about our friends and loved ones having to uncover all this.

    By the way, folks. If you keep stuff on your computer, make sure you let people know how to get on it if you password protect it, as we all do.

    It is really important, if possible, to designate someone to help whoever has your POA with your computer, if they are not good with them. That alone can solve a lot of issues.

    And if you have some setup on your system to access info, make sure you communicate how to access/use it to others.

  22. RE: Service Providers

    In your contact information, be sure to have included the account numbers and how you pay your bills (online, snail mail, etc.), when they are due, and any special password information you need when you call these companies.

    You should keep a copy of a recent bill with this information as well. (You are frequently asked: How much did you pay and when did you make your last payment?)

    And please know that it may be very difficult if you are dealing with some vendors such as Con Ed, Verizon, etc. to alter or shut off service.

    If you do not have POA, some of these people simply will not deal with you. Period.

    It can be very problematic as I discovered when I went to change (first), then shut down my mother’s service in the months prior to her death and then after her death. And I had the POA!

    This is also the case with credit card companies, who require a copy of the death certificate or in the case of incapacitation, proof that you are legally acting for someone. Without a POA, they won’t even talk to you. (BIG problem for folks who are suddenly incapacitated.)

    And don’t think you can fool these people. Even if you call from the phone listed as the contact phone.

    In a way it’s good to know that they are careful, but it can also cause big problems at a time when you least need it.

  23. Buy a USB Flash Drive and encrypt the entire thing with TrueCrypt (WWW dot TRUECRYPT dot ORG). It’s open source and FREE.

    Use a really strong random ASCII password from GRC (WWW dot GRC dot COM slash PASSWORDS dot HTML) to encrypt the contents of this Flash Drive. If you lose the flash drive, at least all your private files won’t be in the open.

    You can also create hidden folders, and put your sensitive data inside those. Only when you connect to it using your strong password with TrueCrypt, will it be viewable.

  24. Great article!

    One thing I’d add – info about any pets you have. Many pets are surrendered upon an owners death/disability/hospitalization, simply because there is no record of the breeder (good breeders will take an animal they bred back at any time, for any reason), friends/family who will take the animal, breed rescue organizations, etc.

  25. My wife and I were in a car accident and spent a month in the hospital. We were well organized at that time and so our parents could get a handle on our bills easily. All our bills were in one spot and the due dates were on the calendar.

    If you keep this in a home safe and you burn the photos to CD/DVDs you’ll want a media safe NOT an ordinary fire safe. CDs melt far below the 400F temps that an ordinary fire safe allows.

  26. If the gas, electricity or water needs to be switched off in my house in an emergency then I’m sure no-one is going to scrabble around in a folder. It’s best that all inhabitants are taught exactly where they are already.

  27. Great information! My wife and I need to go through this as well. We do have the “master document,” but need to complete it with the Insurance information, etc.

    Currently I keep the master document and electronic copies of everything on a Network Attached Storage using TrueCrypt,and back it up using iDrive (someone mentioned using Mozy, iDrive is similar).

    Also I have all the password information in KeePass. So the Master Doc explains how to get into KeePass, and KeePass has information on all the accounts.

    But with all of that, my wife having to take over all the accounts and figure it out still would be difficult — so I know I have work to do.

  28. One of the best articles you’ve written in all your time of writing. Seriously. I’ve been following the website passively on my Google reader and just scanning most articles but this one properly had me compelled. I will be sure to utilise this.

    Being 20 and without kids or a husband I know I still need to prepare something similar however how can I convince my parents to do it? My father has put off writing a will for a while and it wasn’t until when I pointed out that my mother might be liable for a timeshare appartment that we no longer use nor want but can’t sell. There are maintenance payments that we refuse to pay as they are extortionate but if he should pass on before her we weren’t sure what would happen if something wasn’t down in writing.

    As I’m sure you’re aware bringing up the issue of writing a will and getting things prepared in case he suddenly becomes incapacitated is difficult and if not done carefully can be upsetting. How would you raise this issue?

  29. Great post… thanks for the reminder! This is one of those things I “keep meaning to do” but never quite finishing. We’re in the middle of moving now, but as soon as we get where we’re going, this will be at the top of the to-do list!

  30. Did you mention info about your safety deposit box?

    For funeral planning, a list of organizations with which you are involved that would like to know (your choir or soccer club or bowling league or trekkie fan group or whatever).

    Even if you don’t get everything done, it is good to start it. You will hit at least a few important things, and it might even get you thinking about how to avoid future problems (e.g. if incapacitated, or how you will distribute your estate among the descendents).

  31. Fabulous advice! When I was living overseas in South Africa as an 18 year old, my parents were in the States for several months and had left me with our house, car, and a roommate to keep me company. Unfortunately, I was kidnapped from my car one evening and then left on the side of the road after a couple hours (not hurt – just shook up and minus all my possessions). As soon as I got to a police station, I was able to call my roommate, have her print-off the “in case of emergency” sheet my parents had created. With the sheet, I was able to provide the police with all the car information (they found it a couple days later) and quickly stopped the stolen cell phone, credit cards, and atm cards. I also had contact numbers for family friends nearby and my family in the States on the sheet so that I was able to call them immediately. A very traumatic experience was not as bad as it could have been because of the foresight my parents had to gather the important information together.

  32. This is so important. Thank you for the documentation plan. I already have a version of this in place. A friend of mine died suddenly and she did not leave a will or any instructions. Her brother was eventually able to become her executor and control her finances, but only after having to incur credit card debt and lawyer’s bills in the process while he waited for her funds to be released. Lack of advance planning can hurt friends and relatives in many ways, both emotionally and financially.

  33. Awesome, package all your information into an easy to digest form ready for identity theft.

  34. I don’t have all the answers, but I do have this one on disaster preparedness/recovery:

    A letter pertaining to disaster (hurricane, earthquake, tornado, flood, fire, etc.) has been sent to President Obama on behalf of all insurance policyholders. As a matter of transparency on the record of insurance consumer protection, any response by President Obama will be posted on the following Website for review: http://www.disasterprepared.net/president.html

    Qui potest et debet vetare, jubet: (Law Maxim)
    HE WHO CAN AND OUGHT TO FORBID A THING [IF HE DO NOT FORBID IT] DIRECTS IT

  35. Thank you for this great piece of advice.
    Our house got broken into a few years back. We lost our computer, camera & camcorder. We lost years worth of data, pictures and films.
    These days we have an external hardrive, and try to print pictures as we go, but those things can still get stolen or destroyed, unfortunately.
    While it is great to take many precautions, sometimes you just need to accept and part with your belongings…

  36. Trent, thank you for this reminder of preparing for disaster and I’m deeply sorry for your loss.

    I believe we all think that tucking the information in our heads will be adequate and that “someday” we’ll write it all down. Thank you for this “wake-up” call.

    One of my friends is encouraging us (in her circle) to exchange contact information: lists of friends and family (names with relationships & telephone or email addresses) whom we’d need notified in an emergency. Most of us are single and realize that we’re older. Some of us have had heath “challenges” and yet we still believe we’ll remain “able”. I notice that although she sent her information to several of us, I have yet to sit down and send my list out either.
    This is analogous to creating health care decisions paperwork. Absolutely essential to have someone authorized to make decisions (medical or financial) on my behalf if I am unable, yet, I and many others still haven’t created the final documents OR have them, but not shared them with the potential decision makers.

  37. I agree with others – one of your best posts. Very timely for me, you can’t know how timely. Pls. – more posts like this one! In these uncertain times, people need more critical financial information, less ‘cut out your daily latte’ type advice.

  38. Great Post & Comments!!

    I’ve had 2 close friends lose their Mothers suddenly and neither had their records in order so it has been very difficult. Both now are proclaiming to all their friends how important this is, and this article covers just about everything.

    Some things I’d like to add:

    1. Pre-plan and pre-pay for your funeral if possible. It’s cheaper and most importantly, it’s done.

    2. If you have been married before, or have children from previous relationships that no one knows about, please leave record of this with your important papers. You must have this information for Social Security if you are the surviving spouse.

    Close friends of mine have “found out” about half-siblings they were unaware of and that one or more of their parents had been married before and there was no record of it or the dates.

    3. When you create your Will, do not use the phrase “I leave everything to my children”. Use the names of the children… “I leave everything to my children, Sam, Julie, David, etc…” If you use the first phrase then you may end up in probate court with a judge who will question how many children the deceased actually had, you may have to post it in the paper as a notice for other children to come forth, you may have to get friends and relatives that have known the deceased their entire lives to testify on the number of children, etc…

    Anyway, it is a real nightmare for the Executor and prolongs the probate by months. This happened to a friend of mine. So if you made your will years ago, look it over and talk to your attorney.

    4. Update the list of Executors in your Will. My parents had my Aunt and Uncle listed that would currently be very inappropriate. They changed it, and none too soon.

    5. Update your file cabinets and get rid of the “papers” you no longer need and only keep what is important. It will save your Executor hours & hours of having to sift through all that stuff.

    6. If you have a “friend” that no one knows about but you are very close to and you would want them to know of your passing, add their name to the list of people that need to be contacted upon your death. After you’re gone they will want to know.

    7. Write your Obituary and leave it with your important papers. You know best how you want to be remembered and your Executor doesn’t have to compose one on the spot. It’s always easier to “update” than to start from scratch.

    That’s all I have for now but I’m sure I will learn more as my friends and family face similar situations. Hope some of these suggestions help you in the future…

  39. This is great information. As a CPA, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a client become ill and the family has no idea what to do financially. It’s so sad when the family is grieving the loss of a loved one and trying to figure out what assets, if any, the deceased has to help pay for the funeral. Thank you for this post.

  40. Having lost my home to a hurricane last summer, I wish I had been better prepared. Some thoughts for if you live somewhere that may require evacuation (for wildfire, hurricane, etc).

    1) Make an evacuation checklist. We had our important paperwork all pulled together (for potential evacuation), but we left it behind, meaning we have or still need to replace SS cards, marriage license, etc. And that’s with plenty of warning/time to evacuate. Wildfires may not give you as much time. Make sure you include things like wedding photos if they can’t be replaced.

    2) Keep some cash on hand during disaster season if you have one. My parents live near Baton Rouge. After Katrina, stores opened on generators, but banking systems were down for days. A lot of the regional banks were based in New Orleans. No credit cards, debit cards, or checks could be processed. ATMs were mostly down too. With cash you could shop.

    3) The inventory Trent mentioned is a lot of work, but it’s easier before your house is crushed by storm surge. Trying to list your possessions by memory is no fun. It took us weeks to come up with an inventory for the insurance. It would have been a lot quicker and easier to document it when we still had the stuff.

    4) Know your insurance exclusions. I lived maybe 2 miles from the coast and less than 100 yards from a large bay (what got us). Our homeowners excludes not only flood, but wind. We buy them both separately. Some of our neighbors didn’t have one or the other (or both). Bad idea.

    5) Don’t forget to turn off the water to your house. Or the city will turn it back on, even if your entire neighborhood is uninhabitable. And you will have a broken pipe and a $500 water bill (since your house or what’s left of it is condemned and you are still commuting from another state trying to sort out the mess).

  41. This is vitally important to do, yet I have still not done it.

    Two years ago my husband woke up and had two seizures, he had never had one before. I had to try to recount his medical history at the ER. I could tell them his medication, but not much about his history prior to our relationship. Something like this would’ve come in handy.

    This past February my town was hit with an ice storm that left us without power (at my house) for a week. We also went several days without telephone reception, and the roads were very dangerous to travel due to ice and fallen tree limbs. It was a scary time because I didn’t know if my relatives were ok or if they had food/heat/water. Having a plan would’ve saved us a lot of worry and endangerment since we ended up braving the roads in order to check on our families.

    An important thing to note, if you update copies of your legal documents (will, living will, power of attorney, etc.) it is crucial that you destroy all copies of the previous document. For example, if there are multiple copies of a will floating around, that can raise legal issues after your death, even if there is a clause stating you revoke all prior wills. Competency at the time of execution can become an issue and make an even bigger mess of an already difficult situation.

  42. Make sure that your legal relationships are in the state that you want them to be. I refer in particular to spouses. My grandfather died without a will. His second wife was still living in a different country, they had not been together for at least 25 years. It was fairly certain that it was not his intention for her to inherit anything, yet she was entitled to a statutory 1/3 of the estate because of dower rights in this state. A legal divorce would have made my father’s life so much easier. Even a simple will would have made life easier, even though the dower rights would still have applied.

    By the same token, the intention to legally adopt children should be actually carried out also.

    Living together doesn’t count for much either, in the world of probate.

    Seek legal advice please, and make sure that what you want to have happen is what will actually happen.

  43. Kate, who said “Think a little more broadly” -

    The article started by talking about Trent’s mother and her difficulties organizing his grandmother’s information. That directly addresses your situation, since you mention you have kids.

    And most readers of this blog are in a younger age group than you, so there is nothing wrong with Trent addressing the majority of his audience directly with examples that are relevant to younger people. Personally, I appreciate it.

  44. Another point I would like to make is to have current medical information on you and in your vehicle. I read an article where a woman traveled a lot. She realized that, if she were in a bad car accident, the paramedics would have to spend lots of time finding her information at a time when speed would be critical. So she made a form to keep in her car and in her purse.

    I did the same thing and did more than she did. I typed two pages on the computer. One page had the list of my contacts-daughter, son, and a local neighbor with name, address, phone #. The other page listed my meds and dosages; my blood type; my dr’s name, address, & phone #; my allergies; my name, address, & phone #. When I printed them out, I minimized them, put them back to back, and covered them with the plastic laminated pouches. I attached one to the left edge of my sun visor and put one in my purse. I update them when needed.

  45. Excellent post, thanks! Like many others who have commented here, I have been meaning to put something like this together for some time. But as someone who works in Information Security, the idea of having all this info in one place makes me twitch :-) I guess you have to weigh the risks – I think I will give an encrypted electronic copy of this to my emergency contact, and just hope that if needed they will have power and access to a computer.

    I just finished some in-field training with Noah’s Wish (http://www.noahswish.org) and so disaster/emergency response is on my mind.

  46. my friend was in the hospital for 10 days and his SO (that he lives with) couldn’t legally decide anything/sign for him. BUT they had discussed getting PoA in case of disability, the week before but never got around to it!

    I am single and not attached and am trying to find a free PoA form (I am unemployed) so that my family can handle my stuff if I am incapacitated. I don’t have much, but the hassles that I am reading here in the comments and the column are too trying on a family. They won’t thank you for the hassle when you get better.

    Thanks Trent!!!

  47. Be sure to conceal your binder where a thief won’t be able to easily find it. Mislabel it. If you have a row of binders for other purposes, put it in there labeled something like the series. For example, if your series is English 101, Bio 101, Calculus II, make your important binder something massively boring like “Differential Equations.”

    If you send hard copies to others, like parents or out of state relatives, instruct them to conceal them as well.

    We don’t plan to save photos, just our negatives. You can carry a lot more negatives than photos. Take pictures (with film as well as digital) of the treasured photos you don’t have negatives for and keep those. Consider doing the same for your home inventory; have a set of negatives as well.

    I’m not a big fan of jump drives for permanent storage, or even long-term storage. I’ve seen them fail. I prefer repetitious redundancy. Have the jump drive, e-mail the documents to yourself, burn a CD, have online backup and have a hard copy. Encryption is a good idea; I need to learn how to do that.

    Wills are not the place to save money. There are many, many pitfalls and working with an attorney can save a great deal of heartache and money. By all means draft something up before you go, but get expert advice to finalize it. The same with Powers of Attorney.

    You may find you need to invest in a trust for maximum protection of your family, particularly if you have a disabled dependent who will need lifetime care. Screw it up and your dependent can end up kicked off of disability and Medicaid or Medicare until the money you left is all gone.

    Don’t confuse a will with estate planning. They are different things, and consulting a financial planner and estate planner can save obscene amounts of money down the road between taxes and probate fees.

  48. With the number of online accounts for paying bills and associated passwords, it’s a good idea to keep those listed somewhere as well. Most all of our bills are paperless and we pay what we can online. Hopefully you can limit the number of different passwords you have to track.

    When my wife and I travel together (especially out of country) and the kids are back home, I leave a short list of names and contact info along with a key to our safety deposit box with a trusted friend who knows the drill if something were to happen.

  49. Excellent article. I am a widow and when my husband died I had a mess. We had a side line business and he kept everything in his head until he wanted me to invoice. So I had no way of knowing who owed us money. I made a collection call on one account and advised them the situation and they advised me that my husband told them they only had to pay 1/2 of the invoice. I had nothing to back that up so had to take what they offered.
    My adult son and I have since prepared close to what you have suggested.
    One suggestion to add would be if you have rental property, advise tenants name and number and where copy of lease is located. Also advise amount of deposit being held (which actually should be stated in the lease).

  50. This is an invaluable list — thank you! I haven’t yet had time to read all the comments, but it looks like there’s a lot of great info in there, too.

  51. Thank you so much for putting this list together. Your commenters had some good ideas as well!

  52. on the personal info – add copies of birth (and adoption if applicable) certificates, diplomas/transcripts, marriage lisc, DD214 (military discharge). Having all of those in one place made my life SO much easier when I was widowed. We’d gone to a ‘marriage class’ at our church where they urged us to make and keep a “life book”.

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