Steps for creating your Estate Notebook: Easing the Burden for Your Family after Your Death

Julie A. Alix

July 26, 2018

Estate Planning

When you pass away, will your spouse and family know where to find:​

  • Your burial and funeral wishes?
  • Your will?
  • Your bank accounts, investments, and life insurance policies?
  • Your income tax records?
  • ​Your estate planning attorney, trust officer, accountant, and other advisors?

This is only a short list of all the critical information that your family will need to locate during a very difficult and emotional time. But there are some steps that you can take now to make it much easuer on your loved ones and the people you are counting on to have access to the details they need to manage your affairs after your death. 


Create an Estate Notebook

The steps that follow will help you create an Estate Notebook that collects and organizes valuable information about your assets, benefits, and wishes. The Notebook will give your spouse, your family, and your executor the guidance they need at a very difficult time, helping them easily locate any funeral arrangements you have made, contact numbers for your advisors, and other important personal and financial records. 

It can also reduce the time, expense, and anxiety that your spouse and executor experience in settling your estate. Make sure you keep your Estate Notebook (or an electronic version of it) in a mutually agreed upon and secure place.


Step One: Gather and record basic data

At a minimum, your Notebook should contain:

  • A document with the essential information needed for a death certificate, including your social security number, date of birth, place of birth (city or town, state and country), and full names of your father and mother (including her maiden name). You can also include the birthplace of your parents.
  • ​A copy of your birth certificate. 
  • Copies of your marriage certificate(s) and the location of information about any divorce decrees.
  • ​Your dates of service and date of discharge if you are a veteran. If you have a copy of your discharge papers, include them in the Notebook as well.
  • A list of the names, street addresses, email addresses, and telephone numbers of all of your advisors, including your estate planning attorney, trust officer, accountant, investment managers and insurance agents.

To help others with ongoing household management, a separate list with the phone numbers and email addresses of the companies or individuals you employ for plumbing, electrical work, fuel delivery, furnace and chimney cleaning, carpentry and repairs, housekeeping, landscaping, and garden maintenance can be extremely helpful. 

If you have household employees, it will be helpful for your family to know the financial arrangements with each employee, such as payroll ($/hour) and benefits (vacation). Provide the name and contact information for the payroll service provider, the insurance agent handling the workers compensation insurance, and the name of the insurance carrier with the policy number.

Prepare separate lists for vacation homes in other locations as well. Again, include contact names, phone numbers, and email addresses on all of these lists.


Step 2: Include a copy of your will

When you die, the most important document for your spouse to locate is your original will, which will be used by your attorney to begin the process of probating your estate. It may be held for safekeeping at your attorney’s office or in your safe deposit box. 

When Cambridge Trust is named executor, we often hold the will in our own Wealth Management vault for safekeeping and ready access after your death. 

Make sure you include a copy of your will and any codicils (additions) in your Estate Notebook, and note the location of the original documents on each of them. 


Step 3: Outline funeral and burial plans

No one wants to think about his or her own mortality, but it is much easier to contemplate funeral and burial wishes when you are mentally strong and physically healthy, and not dealing with a challenging medical situation. 

Pre-planning your own funeral also can relieve your spouse and family of the burden of decision-making at an extremely stressful and emotional time. Plus, they will be comforted knowing that the arrangements reflect your wishes. 

You may want to leave instructions about your burial and funeral in your Notebook, or you can meet with your local funeral director to prearrange and prepay for your funeral services.If you make arrangements with a funeral home, the name, address, and telephone number of the funeral home should be in your Notebook as well.

At a minimum, include the location of your cemetery plot and the location of the deed for that plot in your Notebook. If you do not own a cemetery plot, specify where you wish to be buried and whether you wish to be cremated or not. Provide instructions about the location for the service and the celebrant you desire. 

If you wish, you also can include an outline of your significant life events and accomplishments to assist your family in preparing an obituary and for the celebrant to use at your funeral service. 


Step 4: Prepare a list of your annuities, life, and casualty insurance 

  • Include a detailed list of all annuities and life insurance policies, with policy numbers and beneficiary designations, along with a copy of each policy or contract and the location of the originals. Include the most recent annual statement for each of them in the Notebook as well.
  • List all other types of insurance in your Notebook—such as property, liability, personal health, automobile, accident, credit card, and malpractice coverage—with the name of the insurance company, policy number, location of the policies, and contact information for each insurance agent responsible for your coverage. This information will help your family cancel unnecessary policies and obtain premium refunds, or continue important policies for protection, as needed.


Step 5: Make a list of securities and investments

Include a list of all brokerage, bank, mutual fund, and investment accounts, as well as any limited partnerships in your Notebook. Copies of recent statements are helpful too. 

For IRA or IRA Rollover accounts, provide a copy of the current Beneficiary Designation form, indicating primary and, if appropriate, contingent beneficiaries. If you are receiving any distributions from these accounts, note how much is paid and at what intervals.

In addition, your Notebook (and your accountant) should have a record of any federally tax-deductible and non-deductible contributions that you made to your IRA, so that taxability can be calculated when distributions are made.

If you hold any stock certificates in physical form, provide a description of them and where they are being held (e.g. safe deposit box at specified bank and branch location). If you hold assets in book entry form at the transfer agent, include the most recent annual statement in your Notebook as well.


Step 6: Summarize your benefits

To collect any benefits your spouse is entitled to, he or she will need to know what they are and who to contact. Benefits paid by the Social Security Administration, Veteran’s Administration, and current or former employers are the first that come to mind. 

  • If you paid into social security, your spouse or dependent children may be eligible for a Death Benefit (currently $255 for burial expenses) and for Survivor Benefits, which vary depending on the age and relationship of the survivors. 

To inquire about these benefits, your spouse will need your social security number. He or she will also need to know whether you applied for or were receiving social security retirement benefits, Medicare, or Supplemental Security (SSI) for a disability. 
 
You can find useful information about all of these benefits at www.socialsecurity.gov. For some benefits, your spouse may be able to apply online; for the Death Benefit, your spouse will need to call 1-800-772-1213.

  • If you are a veteran with an honorable discharge, your spouse may be entitled to funds for funeral and burial costs. 

Burial in a national cemetery is free. Veterans are also eligible for a grave marker and a flag. For more information, contact the Department of Veterans Affairs at 1-800-827-1000, or visit their website at www.va.gov.

  • If you have benefits at work, keep a list of all plans and benefits, with a description and a copy of the Beneficiary Designation form for each one. Your list may also may include employer-sponsored life, health, and accident insurance, as well as retirement benefits in the form of a pension, 401(k) plan, Employer Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), and/or stock options.

You’ll also want to include contact information for your current employer and all past employers from whom you are due benefits. Because many companies have merged or been acquired, it’s important to keep this list updated and, if possible, to save the most current annual statement from any retirement plans in your Notebook.


Step 7: Include trust documents 

If you’ve established any trusts, provide the location of the original instruments and any amendments and include a copy of the trust documents in the Notebook. If you are the beneficiary of any trusts, include copies of those trust documents as well. 
 
For each trust, include the name of the trustee (which may be an institution or individual), name of the Trust Officer or other trustee representative with whom you communicate, and that person’s email address and telephone number. Adding an annual or current statement for each trust account to the Notebook is also helpful. 


Step 8: Compile property information 

  • Provide descriptions of all real estate holdings, residential and commercial, along with copies of the deeds and a copy of a real estate tax bill. If the location is difficult or unclear, include directions.  

For rental real estate, list the location of the property, the name(s) of the current tenants, and the rent amount, due dates, and method of payment. Put copies of current leases in the Notebook. If there is a property manager or someone else assisting you in the oversight of the property, provide the name of the firm or individual, address, and telephone number. If you are managing the property yourself, your Notebook should include a list of the companies or individuals you typically use for maintenance.

  • Include appraisals of any valuable tangible personal property or collectibles in your Notebook, along with the location of the property and the contact information for any experts with whom you have consulted. Photographs of valuable items, particularly those listed on a fine arts schedule of your homeowners policy, are useful. Provide the location of any titles, for your automobiles and boat.


Step 9: Show the status of your personal finances 

The location of the following items should be listed in your Notebook:

  • Pending bills and estimated tax vouchers for the current tax year.
  • Safe deposit box(es) and keys (e.g. “in my top right desk drawer,”) especially if your will 
  • and other original documents are in the box. Include the name of the bank and the address of 
  • the branch office where the box is located, if applicable. You may want to provide an inventory 
  • of what is in the box.
  • Prior checking account statements and check registers, as well as where you store your 
  • unused checks and current check registers.
  • Any other financial records that you think may be useful to your spouse, family, or executor.

It’s also helpful to maintain a list of all bills that are debited automatically from your checking account(s) and whether they are charged monthly, quarterly, or annually.

  • Loans

If anyone owes you money, indicate the details: name and contact information for borrower, amount of loan, and your expectations regarding payment of interest and principal. Include copies of any promissory, demand, or mortgage notes, and indicate where the originals are held.

  • Debts

Provide information about your debts, such as credit cards, outstanding mortgages, or loans made toyou. Provide the amount, payee, account number, and schedule for payments,
as well as a copy of a recent statement.
 
If you have any loans that were paid off in full, you may want to include the documentation that states that such a payoff was made, or include the original note so marked.

  • Tax-related information

Your notebook should include a copy of your most recent federal and state income tax returns and information about any quarterly estimated tax payments due in the current year. You should also provide the location where you keep copies of your prior income tax returns. If you have ever filed any gift tax returns with the IRS, include copies of those too.


Step 10: Identify inheritances

If you inherited property from someone within the past ten years, provide their name, date of death, and the name and address of the executor, if you know it. Your estate may be entitled to some tax savings.
 
Setting up an Estate Notebook will, realistically, take some time. But an ideal time to begin it is early in the calendar year, after you have received year-end annual statements and are researching and collecting information to prepare your income tax returns. That will make the collection of the data you need much easier and quicker.
 
Then, once your Notebook is established, you can update it annually with far less work. At Cambridge Trust we also recommend backing up the information on a secure electronic device, as part of your personal disaster recovery plan. 
 
It is never too early to begin this project. Not only will working on it highlight issues that need to be addressed (for example, getting clear title to an asset, making gifts to reduce your taxable estate, or funding your trust), but you will feel great satisfaction in having organized your affairs in a way that substantially eases a difficult future burden for your spouse and loved ones.
 
This article is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as investment or legal advice.