Making and Maintaining a Master Information Document

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.

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.