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Opinion: How to create a survivors’ guide for family

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There’s a quote from Albert Einstein: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind – then what about an empty desk?” (Another quote attributed to Einstein: “I never said half the crap people said I did.”)

So, if the Einstein who takes care of your household finances dies, and their desk is a mess, what will the surviving spouse or family need to do over the next few days and weeks?

Imagine yourself in their shoes. Is it going to be easy for them to find all your important documents and accounts, including life insurance information, and to know who to call for professional help with all of it?

If you’re the one handling the finances and bookkeeping in your home, I’m not saying you have to transform yourself into a neat freak. But will the first question your survivors ask be, “Where is everything?”

Financial life
Start to get ahead of that right now, by building a Survivors’ Guide inside a three-ring binder or include it on a digital flash storage stick if your survivors are tech-savvy.

The centerpiece is essentially a table of contents for your financial life – a rundown of your personal information, contact information for your insurance agents, investment adviser, attorney, accountant and other advisers; where your assets are located; where you stashed the car and home titles; safe-deposit box location; bank information; etc. Note: No account numbers and Social Security numbers should be listed, because you don’t want those so easily accessible but placed in a more secure location.

In the guide, include a tab or pockets for copies of your original wills and trusts, insurance policies, health care directive, powers of attorney, real estate deeds and tax information, again being careful to protect personally identifying information from potential identity thieves. Tuck an updated Christmas card mailing list in there as a directory for your survivors to notify of your passing. You may even want to include a self-written obituary and eulogy – to truly get the last word.

Project time
What other important items should you include? Every household is unique; your Survivors’ Guide won’t be exactly like anyone else’s binder.

It didn’t take an Einstein to come up with this. But it’s a great guide, a checklist of items you need to organize. And in addition to helping those you leave behind, you too may benefit just from the act of pulling everything together, if you’re not already as organized as you’d like to be. Once you get this done, even you will be able to find everything.

To be sure, this will take some time and effort to put together. It’s not something you finish overnight, so chip away at the project over time.

But once it’s complete, you can sleep better knowing if something happens to you, your survivors can find everything. Be sure you discuss this with those who need to know, let them know where to find it, and show it to them.

Maybe it’s the surviving spouse who will use this first, so think about this: If that were to be you, do you already know where everything is? If you helped pull all this information together for your household’s Survivors’ Guide, you’d know.

Pass it on
And when you do find yourself suddenly on your own, it becomes yours, and you can update it for your own survivors’ benefit someday. When you show the kids where you keep your Survivors’ Guide, and they see what you did for them, accept their thanks. And then ask if maybe they need to organize their own financial lives? It’s never too soon to start. But one day it will be too late.

This isn’t something we only do for ourselves. We do it for our family, the ones we leave behind to pick up the pieces. A Survivors’ Guide just makes all those pieces easier to find, easier to pick up, at a time when the last thing your survivors want is to have to dig through Einstein’s desk.

Certified financial planner Kenny Gott is president at Piatchek & Associates and author of the book “Bottom Line Financial Planning.” He can be reached at kgott@pfinancial.com.

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