Updated on 05.03.08

Making and Maintaining a Master Information Document

Trent Hamm

cabinetAbout a year ago, I wrote a lengthy article about how to start a filing system, including information on what kind of filing cabinet to buy and what sorts of things you should file. Near the end, though, I wrote one little paragraph that deserves to be looked at again in more detail:

A master document explaining what all of this stuff is This is mostly a guide to the executor of your estate, containing all important information not contained in the other documents and also explaining online account access and other such information, like where a safety deposit box key should be and such. This may also include personal letters to people for them to read in the event of your passing and so forth.

Think about this scenario: if you dropped dead right after reading this article, would your survivors – your kids, your spouse, your family – have any idea how to access your money? Would they even know where all of your accounts were?

For most people, the answer is a big fat no – and that’s an answer that can be very dangerous. It’s worth spending a few hours to put together a master information document – and updating it every year or so – just so your loved ones will have a much easier time with things in the event of your untimely demise.

How to Prepare a Master Information Document
Preparing such a document is pretty simple, actually. You just need to create a single document that includes all of the information your loved ones might need to settle all of your outstanding accounts and get all of the benefits they should be getting. Here’s a checklist of what you should include.

Account information for every account you have open. Everything from your retirement account all the way down to your library card should be included here. This will allow the person using the document to systematically go from account to account and, at the very least, have access to them.

A complete list of every benefit anyone is entitled to upon your passing. This means life insurance benefits, Social Security information, retirement accounts that may disburse, and anything else that might benefit people once you’re gone. This is the stuff that you’re paying for now so that they can have it later – make sure they get it.

A complete list of all debts and all assets. This will provide a complete financial picture for you. For each of these, provide plenty of information – the current balance as of your writing, how to contact that entity, and any account information that’s relevant.

A detailed description of how to handle any business assets you may have. This is only true for some folks, but it’s vital. If I were to have an untimely passing, I have a plan in place and it’s well-documented – all of the steps that someone needs to take to ensure that The Simple Dollar’s archives remain up and running and my other business interests are handled well.

A copy of your will, your living trust, and any other documents pertaining to your estate. You should have several copies of these documents, but be sure to include an extra one here just in case.

What Now?
Once you have the document prepared, what’s next? Here are a few steps worth taking.

Make sure everyone has access to a copy. For us, my parents, my wife’s parents, my wife, and our safe deposit box will all have copies of this document very soon. It’s currently saved on my computer’s hard drive and on my backup drive, too, so the information could be found if need be, but I intend to print it out and give it to each of these people so they’re sure to have one if it’s needed. You can distribute these electronically, but be very careful, as the document is larded with personal data that an identity thief would love to have.

Talk it over with them. Make sure they know what the document is and what they should do with it. It’s not useful if it’s not in people’s hands or if they don’t know what it’s for.

Update it regularly – at least annually. Just pull out your electronic copy, read through it, and update anything that needs updating. If it’s significant, print out new copies for everyone and distribute them.

Take a few hours and put this document together, especially if you have a family. You’ll feel much better knowing that one of your bases is covered.

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  1. FinancialFinesser says:

    So I have a question, could you keep something like this in a safety deposit box ONLY? I’ve never had a safety deposit box, but I assume you can list people who can access it if something were to happen to you? I’m single and in my twenties, but I’d want my parents to know all my login info for all my accounts if something happened to me, but I don’t want to give them something like this outright, because they’d probably just think I was being morbid.

  2. Jay says:

    Another excellent, thought provoking post. Thanks.

  3. Andy says:

    This is great advice and something I really need to get started on.

  4. FW says:

    Good concept for an article. You forgot one important tip – going paperless. I have invested in a $500 scanner with OCR document recognition and an excellent file management system. I now store my documents on a secure server. Not only does this give me a great backup but I can retrieve any document I need in a matter of seconds anywhere in the world.

    There are less costlier solutions but I have found this is the best for me. I am at the point where I simply store all my medical references and magazines on electronic format (PDF)

  5. MN Scout says:

    Where would you put passwords to the online accounts? In the Master Information Document, would you say something along the lines, “For the master list of passwords for these online accounts, please look in drawer X and document Y.” A better question would be, what don’t you put in this document?

  6. yoth says:

    That sort of prep work is a good idea. Potentially, you could add in your interpretation of specific insurance policies or other things that would potentially be forgotten in the event of your demise such as payout multipliers for work-related death, etc. In fact, there are certain types of retirement plans that don’t “play well” with living trusts so you could capture beneficiary information in there as well. There are expectations for financial vehicles that cannot be legally enforced but would be followed, perhaps, if everyone knew about it.

    This reminds me, I saw an earlier blog entry (January 2007) on wills and trusts but maybe you (or one of the readers) could write one with more details. Probate was discussed but no reference was made (that I could tell) to the “Death Tax”. Maybe this would be interesting to your readers? No idea.

  7. Jo says:

    I have one of these documents, which I’ve discussed with my daughter. On the personal letter side, I included information about what sort of funeral I wanted (simple, frugal), as encouragement to her not to squander any of her inheritance on ostentatious funeral trimmings in a belated display of familial love. :-)

  8. Gayle RN says:

    While it is a good idea for this document to exist, even better is going over it item by item with the persons who need to know. Knowing what and where the accounts are gives your survivors access to nothing unless those arrangements are already in place. An even worse situation than death, which would work out in probate eventually, is the situation of incapacitation. Be sure your durable powers of attorney are in place also. Please seek out legal advice.

  9. MES says:

    I keep wishing that my parents would put together a document like this. They talk all the time about what we need to do when they die, but there is no concrete information ever passed on. There’s been so much casual conversation on the subject over the past 20 years that I’m sure they think we’re entirely prepared– but we’re not! Is it a control issue, or is preparing a document like this admission that they will eventually die? Any suggestions for encouraging them to take some steps in the right direction?

  10. Mark B. says:

    Another great post. Since you have stopped working your posts just keep getting better and better.

  11. Daniel says:

    A master document is very important and more critical with the number of online accounts and passwords everyone has. The security of that document is important too, I keep it locked up and make sure the backup copy I give to anyone is secure as well(in a safe or safety deposit box).

  12. Lisa says:

    Also put a copy of the Master Document in your To Go Bag (the hurricane, flood, tornado hit, house is gone, emergency evacuation bag).

  13. Amit says:

    Thanks Trent, I guess this is a very important tip !

  14. Jen says:

    The thing I would worry about: robbers. There would certainly be a market for this information (al on one handy document!). I am a little afraid to type something like this, too, because certainly the best hackers can access your computer files if they really want to. It makes me nervous, to say the least.

  15. Deb Coyle says:

    How do I find out if my husband and children are entitled to my social security disability upon my passing? I would need to add that to this master document, no? Thanks Trent for great advice.

  16. There’s a FREE resource that will help you put all your important financial information.


    You fill out the form and they send you a CD-ROM with a program on it that will help you get organized. It works pretty well for this sort of thing.

    Great article!

    ~ Christina

  17. Lee says:

    T.Rowe Price offers a Free downloadable PDF called “What Your Family Needs to Know”. They also offer a free CD that you can order “Family Records Organizer”. You do not need an account with T.Rowe Pirce for either of these.



  18. Lost my Father to soon says:

    Another great post. My father had a heart attack and a stroke at the same time, one caused another, but laded in a hospital bed for 3 weeks until his passing at 52. I was 21 at the time and had 3 younger sisters, the youngest was 9. Dad took care of everything, from weekly grocery shopping and writing bills to yearly taxes (here sign this) and all of the maintenance on the house and car. Mom was a stay at home mom and couldn’t even balance the check book, didn’t know what outstanding bills there were except for the house, what stocks he owned, how to drive (she took the bus everywhere), what his government job offered in the way of death benefits, believe me they won’t tell you unless you ask the right questions and you have a short time to do this or you may lose the opportunity for health insurance, what he paid into his retirement, payout of unused vacation time etc, she didn’t have any credit in her name. This in hind sight was where having him in the hospital for 3 weeks gave us time to, with the help of a friend from the office my dad worked for, sit down with a benefit book we didn’t know existed and wrote down everything we needed to do. As well as going to the social security office and what we needed to take, my mom and sisters ss numbers, that we needed to get stuff out of a lock box with only my dad’s name on it, we found a key in the desk and a bill from the bank or we would never have known about it, a challenge but we were able to do it, small town bank, this would probably never fly now. But here is the kicker, the car was only in his name, mom didn’t drive, he didn’t put her name on retirement papers from other positions he held in the past, so the money she could have gotten from the factory he worked for 15+ years went out the window, he took a small retirement/life insurance option instead of a lump sum payment. He only had the free life insurance from work, a small portion of his salary and no life insurance on the mortgage. We had to hire a lawyer for everything we couldn’t do on our own, probate is expensive. He died January 2nd, my best friends mom used an accountant for her taxes and we walked in with a sack full of paper and old returns, it took her a long time to get through the maze of paperwork and she said this wasn’t unusual, the man of the family takes care of all the money. We were totally unprepared for what happened, mom was a basket case, I co-signed a 90 day note to get a dryer and got her a JC Penney credit card to start to get her credit. It literally took years to get her prepared to make it on her own, I didn’t move out until I was 25 to help make ends meet and she had learned to drive, pay her bills, shop, handle sales people who spot a widow a mile away, made sure 2 of my sisters got into college and the last in high school. I always said if he hadn’t died I would kill him for doing what he thought was best.

  19. Lenore says:

    Thanks, Trent!!! This is vital info I really needed and just at the right moment, too.

  20. Good thought. Going over this information with your potential survivors is not very practical. First, they don’t want to think about it — my son flat refuses to consider the possibility that I will die, even though when my mother was my age she had one year left. Second, they forget. And third, things change. So having it all written down is valuable.

    I would not store account and Social Security numbers on my computer, even in password-protected files. Burglars like computers. And they’ll be ever so grateful to you for handing them information they can sell to identity thieves.

    Even giving hard copies to people and expecting them to keep the information in a safe place is problematic.

    I keep this information with my lawyer, with instructions to see that my son gets it when I croak over. Most lawyers’ offices have secure places to store sensitive documents.

    The problem with the safe deposit box is that if your estate goes into probate, your heirs may not be able to access it. You could get around that by renting a box in you executor’s name and giving him or her the key. If the person can be trusted not to lose it.

  21. KC says:

    Thanks for the article. I’ve told myself several times that I need to do something like this. I’m the CFO of my family and should something happen to me my husband would be lost. If something were to happen to both of us my/his family would be lost. We’ve gotten to the point where we do have some assets and I’d want that money to go to our siblings. It wouldn’t make a huge difference to them, but who wouldn’t want a windfall of $30k or so – better than our estate going to the Gov’t or going unclaimed. So I’m going to follow your advice and get cracking on this project.

  22. Camille says:

    I created this document — which I heard is called a Letter of Instruction — and I have a few extra items in it that might interest your readers with children. Assuming my children survive my husband and I, I’ve included all our physicians and their phone numbers, known allergies, phone numbers and contacts at their school, and several of our neighbor’s contact info. Also, we included vet information for our pets. Lastly, I also included contact information for an HR person at work, my manager, and a peer to help manage the work maze.

  23. Martin, the Netherlands says:

    An excellent suggestion! To emphasize the usefulness, may I quote from my personal experiences? My father had some fairly serious health problems. Years before he (very suddenly) passed away, he had shown me a folder containing most of the information set forth in this post. “When I die, I want you to assist your mother. It’s all in here, this folder is in the top drawer of my desk. Let me show you what’s in it.” My faher died on a Friday night. On Saturday morning, I got out the folder and started to work. All the details required (account numbers, insurance policy numbers, addresses and so forth) were at hand. On Monday morning some twenty letters went out (to banks, pension funds, the tax office, etcetera). Besides being very efficient it was very good from an emotional point of view: it was clear I was doing something constructive, and I was doing something that I knew my father wanted me to do. Whether such a document should be in printed form or not, and where it should be stored, is another matter. I have such a document, my wife and our children know where it is. I have written a letter to our children what they should do when my wife and I should die at the same time.

  24. Christopher says:

    Do _not_ keep your only copy of this in a safe deposit box. Depending on what state you’re in it could require a court order to get anything out of the box before the will is finalized (which would be sort of silly since this is exactly the sort of thing you need to finalize the will).

    (disclaimer: IANAL)

  25. Sharon says:

    Trying to balance having everything complete and not giving away the store to the burglars is tough. You might consider sending copies to different people, with just parts of your social security number on each document so they have to get together to put it all together.

    Putting a copy of a paper with this level of detail into a “go” bag scares me–that bag is very, very vulnerable. Putting things on a CD is fine for a go bag, but I would carefully label it something else, like “family pictures.” And remember–CDs are vulnerable, too, to damage. Send copies to at least several trustworthy people as well.

    Personally, I like the idea of leaving the information with an attorney you can trust, and maybe sending copies to assorted other trustworthy family members in different parts of the country or world.

    As long as others have access to the information needed immediately during the crisis and for burial or other disposal, putting it in a safe deposit box is another good option, despite the access problem. Just make sure that your burial instructions, and powers of attorney are not buried there, too. Those are needed immediately. The cleaning up of finances can wait a bit if necessary. That would be better to me than dealing with indentity theft.

  26. David says:

    Doesn’t this place you at a higher risk of identity theft in case of robbery? How can you lower that risk? It seems like putting how to access all your financial accounts in one easy-to-carry sheet of paper is asking for trouble.

  27. simspace says:

    Dave Ramsey calls this concept the “Love Draw”. You can listen what Dave says about that here. Or watch a video of Dave talking about Setting Up A Love Drawer on the CBS Morning Show.

  28. interl0per says:

    I’ve been contemplating doing something similar and putting it on a USB drive which would be left in my firebox, including scans of all of my banking statements etc to date, and scans of my wallet contents.

    Definitely a good idea to have a backup plan, you never know when life will divorce you :)

    One thing though if you are giving this to family or close friends, make SURE you encrypt or at least password protect your digital documents, or risk this getting into the wrong hands when Mr. Friend gets pissed at you someday.

  29. Dan says:

    I do this. But then I put it in an encrypted archive where you type in a password and it opens and decrypts itself.

    PGP Personal lets you do that. (http://www.pgp.com) With the possible exception of the NSA, no-one is going to be able to break the encryption and if the NSA is going through you’re hard drive, you have bigger problems already.

  30. jaxun says:

    I recommend the Personal Information and Records Inventory template provided by AGIS. Very thorough. And exhausting.

  31. Tao Kuei says:

    I don’t believe it. I regularly visit this blog, but found this particular post on Lifehacker.

  32. gaynel says:

    I started a document like this a long time ago – has so much in it – problem is I need to update it on a regular basis… I need a tickler for that!

  33. Kevin says:

    Great article. With all of the fights over wills these days, having one more document will help settle your affairs that much easier.

  34. Catherine says:

    One other thing, be SURE to have a Health Directive stored in the same place. Also make sure that at least one person has legal access to your saftey deposit box and tell them to clean it out BEFORE your death (or disabling illness) is reported to your bank. Sad but true my friends.

  35. Andy Baird says:

    I agree: do NOT put your sole copy of the document in a safety deposit box, because in most states that box will be sealed at the time of your death. Put the document directly into the hands of those who will need it: your family and/or your executor.

  36. Sam says:

    For those worried about security & hackers…. this is what I did. I’m an IT professional & deal with security issues often. BTW- that doesn’t mean I’m omnipotent, another IT person might have a better way… I go for simple

    MS notepad does not save a tmp copy for what your working on to your hardrive. So I opened notepad & saved it to my flash drive so a copy wasn’t on my hard drive. Then I typed everything out as time allowed. I nested the document in my budget backup files on the flash drive.

    I printed it & stuffed a copy in with my life insurance policy & my atty has the other copy (my family is not honest &/or not organized to keep track of such a document). On the atty’s copy I wrote down the location of the notepad document.

    About once a year I send my Mom, Aunt, brother & local close friends an email of emergency numbers & who has a key to my house. By sending everyone the same email, they will all have each other’s email addresses if the phone list is missing/damaged.
    All my relatives are out of town so, if I’m in a car wreck my kid goes to a friend & that friend will know who to get a hold of to get in my house & all my families phone numbers are on a sheet of paper on the wall by my kitchen phone – & they will have to get in my house anyway to get clothes for my kiddo.

    My son has been drilled that if I ever get in an accident so bad that my relatives come to town he is to demand adamantly they look @ my life insurance policy. I have my son help me with my filing so he knows where most things are at & can help them find it fast.
    Also, I made a vague comment to one of my local contacts that my family needs to yank out that policy to ASAP if anything ever occurs. What thief ever looks at an insurance policy when they break in?

  37. Janet B says:

    It looks like some of the issues you are encountering when you file could be solved by using software to keep track of your files. You can try The Paper Tiger Filling system to help you better keep track of your files. Give it a try! We are BBB A-Rated business and are always looking for ways to help people file!

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