Where Are All Your Parents’ Important Documents?

Middle-aged adults I’ve asked about elder care say one of the biggest questions they have for their senior parents is, “Where are all the important documents?” That’s because helping a parent through a health crisis without access to their advance medical directives can be frustrating. Planning a funeral without knowing what a parent would have wanted can be an exercise in self-doubt. Serving as executor of a disorganized estate can require many hours to track down and organize a parent’s crucial documents.Where Are All Your Parents' Important Documents?

Here are some ideas for identifying and organizing the documents your family will need for estate planning, hospitalizations and memorial services. If your parents don’t want to think about end-of-life planning — which is understandable — you may want to point out that it can help you take care of them by keeping their bills paid and their home and pets cared for if they’re ever too ill to do those things for themselves. You can also lead by example by getting your own paperwork together while you help your folks with theirs.

Paperwork for Health Emergencies or Incapacity

When people think of advance directives and power of attorney, they often think about high-profile cases where families fight over the fate of a loved one on life support who has little chance of recovery. There are, however, more common, less dramatic reasons to get your legal ducks in a row before a health crisis.

For instance, if your widowed mom is hospitalized after a fall and then spends several weeks at inpatient rehab, who will keep her insurance premiums, rent and utility bills current during that time? Do you know who to pay? Whose money will you use?

If you can’t access your mom’s accounts and don’t have enough money to cover her expenses plus your own, she could come home to late fees, turned-off utilities and stress when she should be recuperating. An advance health care directive, which outlines your parents’ health care wishes, and a durable power of attorney, which appoints someone to carry out your parents’ wishes if they can’t, can help your family avoid this kind of situation and ensure that your parents get the kind of care they want.

Creating Advance Directives and Powers of Attorney

The exact names and formats of these documents vary from state to state. You can use the American Bar Association’s free advance directive form (valid in all states except Indiana, Ohio, Texas, Vermont and Wisconsin) or follow their links to your state’s forms. In general, these are forms you can print and sign on in front of a notary public and/or witnesses. If you have any questions, it’s a good idea to talk to your family attorney.

Where to Keep Advance Directives

Where should your folks keep their advance directives and power of attorney forms once they’re notarized and signed? The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid recommend that you keep your original advance directive where you can easily find it — a clearly marked file at home, for example. Other copies should go to:

  • Any hospital where your parents are treated
  • You and other trusted family members and friends
  • Your parents’ physicians
  • Your parents’ power of attorney
  • Your parents’ senior living community

Medicare.gov also recommends carrying a wallet card to let emergency caregivers know about your advance directive. The ABA has a free printable advance directive card template your parents can fill out and carry with them, as well as information about the My Healthcare Wishes smartphone app caregivers can unlock with your permission to see the entire advance directive.

Where to Keep Power of Attorney Documents and Related Information

As for your parents’ power of attorney form, they should keep the original in the same spot as their original advance directive and give copies to the person they’ve chosen to act on their behalf if needed, as well as to their attorney, bank and doctor. If you’re the person your folks have appointed, keep a digital copy of the POA on your phone so you’ll have it with you if you need to use it on short notice.

You can also ask your parents to help you make a list of the things you might need to handle if they’re unable to, including

  • Auto loan or lease information
  • Bank accounts
  • Credit card accounts
  • Insurance policies
  • Leases (apartment, storage units, etc.)
  • Mortgage accounts
  • Pet care information, especially diet, medication, vet checks
  • Tax information
  • Utilities

Keep this document on your phone, at your parents’ home and at your home, too. Having this information ready to go will save you a lot of time and frustration if you ever have to keep your parents’ household and financial lives running for them. It will also free you up to spend more time with your parents at a time when they’ll really need you.

Your Parents’ Service Providers and Their Information

It would also be helpful for your parents to introduce you to the service professionals they work now, so you’ll already have at least a passing relationship with them if you ever have to take responsibility for your folks’ day-to-day responsibilities and records. This isn’t always possible, but at the very least, try to make time — with your parents present — to meet their primary care physician and their attorney — the two people you’re most likely to need to talk to if there’s an emergency with your parents.

Even if you can’t meet every service provider your parents have, ask them to make a list of the names and contact information for their:

  • Accountant
  • Attorney
  • Banker
  • Caregivers, if they use a paid service
  • Clergy
  • Doctors
  • Financial advisor
  • Insurance agent
  • Landlord
  • Pet sitter
  • Veterinarian

Your parents, you, and other family members can keep this list on your phones so you’ll have it literally in your hands when you need it, and also keep hard copies at home.

Your Parents’ Memorial Planning Paperwork

Funerals and memorials help survivors process their loss by remembering and paying tribute to the person they loved. A well-planned memorial service or funeral can leave your family and your parents’ friends with comforting memories and help your family stay within a reasonable budget. A funeral that’s planned on the fly just after a loss, when you may be in deep grief and not thinking clearly, can be a source of emotional and financial regret later.

What Memorial Planning Paperwork Will Your Parents Need?

You and your parents can use a funeral planning journal to record your parents’ wishes and to help you start conversations about what type of service they want, whether they prefer burial or cremation, what they’d like their obituary to say about their lives, and more. If your parents have pre-paid for a funeral service or burial plot, copies of those contracts should be kept with the planning journal.

Where to Keep Your Parents’ Memorial Planning Paperwork

In her book, “You Only Die Once: Preparing for the End of Life with Grace and Gusto,” author and end-of-life planning expert Margie Jenkins recommends keeping all your parents’ memorial planning notes and documents in a “Going-Away Party” file, stored where you can get to it easily. Your parents may also want to give you and other family members copies so everyone is literally on the same page about their memorial or funeral plans ahead of time.

Your Parents’ Estate Paperwork

Movies and TV shows make settling an estate look simple and dramatic: the executor reads the will, inheritances and heirlooms are given out, and the family either moves on gracefully in their grief or descends into dramatic quarrels. The reality is that settling even a meticulously well-planned estate takes more time and involves more bureaucracy than anyone would ever want to watch on TV — a few months to a year or more, depending on the size and complexity of the estate. To make the process as simple as possible, here’s an overview of what your parents will need so their estate executive can settle their estate’s debts, pay the taxes, close their accounts, and distribute money and cherished items to their heirs.

Your Parents’ Wills

At the very least, each of your parents will need an up-to-date will, written and signed in a way that meets their state’s legal requirements. Although there are plenty of basic will forms available online, a last will and testament is one area where experts strongly urge people to work with an attorney. In part, that’s to ensure that the will is valid. What happens if your parents die without wills, or with wills that are legally invalid? Their estate goes through probate court, with a court-appointed administrator making decisions about their money, property, and possessions. This process can take several months and cost a few hundred dollars.

If your parents have a large estate and/or property in several states, they may want to work with an attorney and their asset manager to set up a living trust, if they don’t already have one. A living trust in addition to a will can make it faster and simpler to settle a large estate. It can also keep your parents’ estate information out of probate, so the details of their finances don’t become part of the public record.

Your parents should keep copies of their wills and living trusts at home, and their attorney should have copies as well. Whoever your folks appoint as their executor should know where their wills are located. Whoever your parents appoint as alternate trustee for their living trust should have the contact information for their attorney and financial manager.

Other Estate-Related Documents

Margie Jenkins, the end-of-life planner, recommends gathering copies of important documents in one file drawer or box that family members can find easily when they need it. It’s also a good idea to create password-protected PDF copies of these documents so that your family can access and share them remotely. Digital copies can also prevent you from losing information in case of a fire or flood. The documents you or your parents’ estate executor will need include:

  • Bank account numbers and statements
  • Birth, marriage, divorce, name change, and other legal records
  • Bonds
  • Cherished possessions list of items to be handed down to specific people
  • Combinations or keys for home safes
  • Contracts with service providers, gyms or clubs, professional clients, etc.
  • Credit card account information
  • Deeds to property and mortgage documents
  • Household inventory list
  • Insurance policy and Medicare information
  • Investments
  • Leases for rented property, including storage units
  • Military service records
  • Safe deposit box keys and access codes
  • Social Security cards
  • Tax records
  • Titles to vehicles
  • Utility information

Between health care, estate and memorial planning, there’s a lot of documents your parents — and you — will need to do the best possible job of managing their estate, their health and memory. To avoid overwhelming yourself and your parents, just tackle one item at a time or work in small batches over a few weeks or months. By getting these papers in order, you’ll earn the peace of mind of knowing you can help your parents without wasting time searching for documents. If you do your own paperwork at the same time, you’ll give the same gift to your own children or other relatives. And by talking about medical and end of life issues with your parents, you can learn more about what they want and how to honor their wishes.

Casey Kelly-Barton is an Austin-based freelance writer whose childhood was made awesome by her grandmothers, great-grandmother, great-aunts and -uncles, and their friends.

1 Comment

  1. Overwhelmed October 9, 2019 Reply

    With my father, the answer to where his important documents were was, “All over the house, in piles, boxes, files, on the internet (with passwords unrecorded) and perhaps even in a hole in the backyard.”

    It took me 21 months to go through it all after he collapsed and eventually died a few months later. It was nightmarish (and unpleasant emotionally) as I went through paperwork, some going back to the 1960’s and tried to make sense out of it. I even found $9,000 in gold coins in a metal box in the back of the basement. I wound up taking paperwork home in boxes and garbage bags and sifted through it.

    If you love your children, please get organized, rather than put them through an ordeal such as this. It probably would have cost $300,000 to $500,000 to have professionals do what I did.

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