Sorting through the finances of a parent who has died can be messy and tangled.
The difference between having your files organized or not is about more than just stress; leave behind a mess and it can delay inheritors' access to funds and cost a bundle in legal fees.
"It could be six months or longer if you don't have the paperwork in order, and . . . your family is in the dark, not knowing things, jumping through hoops. It's not a fun existence," says Howard Krooks, past president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.
Here's how to get it done:
The list: Compile a list of the financial information your heirs will need upon your death: wills, trust information, investment accounts, legal contacts, etc. You can keep this information in an electronic file -- in one master document or several attachments -- to serve as a road map to find all the physical paperwork.
Or you can just pull out a cardboard box and start piling up the papers.
You have to tell your loved ones you have done it and tell them where to find it. You can either hand over the file immediately or keep it in a safe place (away from the prying eyes of caregivers and potential scammers).
A safe-deposit box, by the way, is not a good place to keep these papers, because it's too hard to access when needed.
The will: Top of the list is a copy of your will, hopefully the most recent version, plus contact details for the attorney who drew it up and any executor named. Also important are trust documents, if they exist.
Financial accounts: Your heirs will need to know all of your account information, down to your utility bills and your tax returns. You can either create a list or include copies of statements in the file, or just directions to where to find them. Also useful is a list of relatives to contact.
Knowing passwords for online accounts is not as important as naming another person on key accounts ahead of time. This way, if the family needs to make mortgage payments or pay any medical bills, they do not have to wait until the estate is settled.
In that same vein, make sure to sign another person up for a key to any safe deposit boxes or home safes. Include clear directions on how to access any other valuables that may be stashed elsewhere.
Survivor benefits: Pensions and insurance plans have many different payout rules, so you need to leave behind detailed information about policies.
Insurance information should extend beyond life insurance to car, home and boat insurance. It is also critical to include your Social Security benefit information.