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Documents You Need Before You Die: The Basics

January 11, 2015

Life is a precious gift.

While youth often convinces us that we will live forever, there will come a time for us to leave this physical world. One of the greatest gifts you can give your family when you pass on is to have your affairs in order.

Throughout this series, we will review the documents we suggest having safely stored—but accessible—in order to make the complicated process that comes with losing a loved one easier to navigate for your loved ones and charities.

In this installment, we focus on the Basic documents you need to compile.

To view an infographic summary of all the 30 Documents You Need Before You Die, click here

At different stages of your life, you’ll have different contents in your life documents, but if you have control over any types of accounts or property—tangible, fiscal or digital—you already have at least some of these documents which represent who you are, the life you’ve lived, and the assets and liabilities that you own.

We encourage you, whether you need to pull together just a few documents, or a long lifetime of documents, that you compile, track, and take thorough notes. The process is simplified if you track as you go rather than doing a large amount at one time.  Once you’ve compiled these necessary documents, try to maintain your hard work.

It can be helpful for many to discuss these items with whomever would be responsible for administering your estate in depth so that they know what you have, where it’s kept and what your wishes are.[i]

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As a first step, we highly recommend printing out your own copy of the Peace of Mind Checklist we’ve provided and filling it out thoroughly. This tool is for you to use to simplify the process for all of these very important life documents.

The Basics

Administering your estate can become extremely complicated for your loved ones.  Keep one signed original will in a safe, easy to find place. It’s not a bad idea to have a digital copy of your signed will on hand. A signed, original will allows you to control what happens to your assets in the event of your passing. Not having an accessible original will, having multiple signed copies of a will, or having a do-it-yourself will can hamper an already difficult process.[ii]

If you are concerned about the cost of a legal professional creating or amending your estate documents, contact a lawyer who is local and share your concerns. They may consider doing the work pro bono, or at a discounted rate.

Letter of Instruction
A Letter of Instruction will make important information readily available and organized. It is also a good place to include your estate intentions and desires for funeral arrangements. Your Letter of Instruction needs to complement your other legal documents, as they do not easily make amendments to your original documents.

If you have a special needs trust, it may help to have a letter of wishes for your trustee to consider when they are making decisions related to your child’s well-being.[iii]

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Trust Documents
Trusts can be of help protecting your assets as they are not subject to the same fees and litigation as your will. Trusts paperwork should always be administered by a qualified legal professional and reviewed by a qualified financial professional who specializes in Estate Planning to ensure they are properly setup and properly funded.[iv]   

Talk with any lawyer who specializes in trusts and they likely have horror stories of do-it-yourself wills that would shock and amaze you. Two words of caution: First, hire a lawyer who specializes in setting up trusts. Even the most esteemed legal professionals are specialists. If Estate Planning is not in their purview, you should seek out a legal professional who is aware of how to properly set up and fund trusts.[v] 

Second, any estate documents that are drawn up should be reviewed by a qualified financial professional to make sure the estate is properly funded according to your wishes, and that it is prepared in the most tax advantageous way; preferably a financial professional who is licensed in both investments and insurances.

Hiring a financial professional who has a fiduciary responsibility based on their licensing and certifications means that they must put your interest above their own. Certified Financial Planners™ are well versed in properly funding trusts and estates and a CFP® can be the financial quarterback for you to rely on when pulling together the entirety of your financial estate.

Peace of Mind Checklist
We created this simple tool to help you organize the vital life documents and pertinent contact information needed to help your family find the location of your documents and so they are able to contact the necessary institutions.

We encourage you to share this checklist with your trusted family members—or whomever is responsible for administering your estate upon death. It may help to have a copy for your executor or your estate trustee. Just make sure if it gets updated, that all original copies get replaced with the most recent version. This may be one of the easiest, but most valuable gifts you can give yourself and your family.

List of Usernames and Passwords
Leaving accessible account information with your family will allow them to contact your institutions and alert them of your death. This will help protect your accounts from becoming dormant and property of the state.
It is important if you have digital property, such as a blog, iTunes® account, voice mail, email, password protected computers, social media sites, business websites, photo-sharing sites, etc. that your passwords are recorded and accessible. Once the digital proprietor discovers a death, they will often close the account, and the content is not always transferable on death to descendants.[vi]

If you’d like to view the full list of 30 documents you need before you die, click here to read our infographic.

This series is based off “The 25 Documents You Need Before You Die,” by the Wall Street Journal, originally published July 2, 2011.


[i] “Life, Death and Money,” Lisa Ward, WSJ, 8.5.13; R4.

[ii] “The Case Against Do-it-yourself Wills,” Forbes, Deborah L. Jacobs; 9.7.10

[iii] “Creating Special Trusts for Challenged Kids,” Tatiana Serafin; Barron’s. P34.

[iv] “10 Biggest Mistakes You Can Make in Your Estate Plan,” Michael S. Kutzin,

[vi] “Protect Digital Assets After Your Death,” Kiplinger’s Retirement Report, Eleanor Laise, May 2013.