Our life is bookended by essential documents: We’re given a birth certificate after our first breath and a death certificate after our last. In between, we accumulate innumerable other certificates, registrations, titles, contracts, licenses, directives, deeds, diplomas and so on. By the time we’re elderly, we have accumulated dozens, perhaps hundreds, of official documents of all shapes and sizes. But which of these are important?
Many situations can require documents, and these situations tend to be unexpected. That’s why it’s wise to proactively locate and organize these materials rather than waiting until some incident or situation makes them necessary. Someone dealing with a crisis involving a parent certainly doesn’t want to find themself in a dusty attic, frantically shuffling through an enormous box of papers, or at the back of a three-hour line in some stuffy government office, trying to find or replace a critical document that has gone missing.
Legally-binding paperwork and forms related to end-of-life are a big part of our list of important documents, but these documents can be required in many other situations, including when an elderly person:
- Moves to a senior community
- Is hospitalized
- Is displaced by an emergency or natural disaster
- Applies for state, federal, or veteran benefits
- Sells a home
- Becomes involved in litigation
It’s important to note that not every document listed below will be relevant to you or your older loved one. For example, marriage certificates are not necessary for a senior who never married. And because every person and family is unique, lists such as this cannot be completely comprehensive. “One-size-fits all” clothes rarely fit, and “one-size-fits all” advice is rarely right, so make sure to consider your own unique circumstances when you work to locate, organize and assemble important documents.
Privacy Need Not be Compromised
People naturally desire a degree of privacy, particularly about their finances. In our culture, parents usually avoid talking about money with their children, even when the children are adults. These secrets can lead to trouble and stress for whole families in cases when an unprepared elderly parent falls ill, passes away suddenly, or develops severe memory loss. All people, including the elderly, have a right to privacy, but prudent seniors will make sure their loved ones have access to crucial information in a serious emergency. Tiffany Wise, Director of Partnership at A Place for Mom, offered some practical advice to families regarding parents who are reluctant to share personal information:
“Many seniors are passionate about keeping their financial information private, even from close family members. Problems arise when a family member is not aware of bank accounts, assets, and pensions, or at least where to find that information. Without a clear picture of the senior’s finances, the family may think that their loved one cannot afford the care they need or the care they feel their loved one would choose for themselves. Keeping exact dollar amounts private until absolutely necessary is okay, but make sure you have a lock box or folder that is organized and accessible to the person who would help arrange for your care if you are injured or ill.”
Privacy and preparation are not mutually exclusive. You can work with your parents to prepare this information while still respecting their privacy.
Financial Documents You Need
Financial documents can be crucial in many instances. Tiffany Wise notes, “If a family member cannot locate important documents like tax returns or bank account information, it could delay or even cause the senior to be denied benefits like Medicaid or VA benefits.” For example, a senior applying for Medicaid or veteran benefits is required to demonstrate their financial need and will have to provide comprehensive documentation of past and present finances. The approval process for such benefits can be stalled for months because of a single missing piece of paperwork. A stalled applications for benefits is more than a mere inconvenience; stalled applications mean delayed assistance that can greatly risk an already frail elder’s health and bring about serious financial hardship to the senior’s loved ones. Furthermore, the heirs of seniors who pass away inevitably need bank records to locate their deceased loved one’s savings. Hundreds of millions of dollars sit idle across the country in bank accounts of people who have been dead for years, sometimes many decades. The oldest of these forgotten accounts have accumulated incredible amounts of interest – fortunes that will never be found. This happens when loved ones aren’t in the loop. This is unlikely to occur with a senior’s primary bank account – those rarely go unnoticed – but if a senior has multiple accounts, the risk of an account being overlooked is greater. Vital financial documents include:
- List of all bank accounts
- Pension documents 401(k) information, and annuity contracts
- Tax returns
- Savings bonds, stock certificates or brokerage accounts
- Partnership and corporate operating agreements
- Deeds to all property
- Vehicle title
- Documentation of loans and debts, including all credit accounts
- Durable financial power-of-attorney (financial proxy)
Healthcare Documents You Need
If a senior becomes incapacitated or can’t communicate, it’s vital that the senior’s wishes be stated in a living will (also known as a healthcare directive), and also that someone with the authority to represent the senior has been designated. Melissa Pratt, a Senior Living Advisor with A Place for Mom explains, “When you have an older parent, you never know when you might need to visit the hospital. Being able to quickly grab official paperwork such as durable power-of-attorney or an advanced-health-care-directive can eliminate lots of stress at the hospital. Doctors want proof that you are the decision maker.”
What’s more, having quick access to a senior’s medical history can be lifesaving during a medical emergency, as a single piece of medical information could be the key to effective treatment. Medical records are also necessary when applying for benefits, including veteran benefits assistance and Medicaid. They are also needed when moving to a senior community. Important health care documents include:
- Health care proxy (durable health power-of-attorney)
- Authorization to release health-care information
- Living will (healthcare directive)
- Personal medical history
- Insurance card (Medicare, Medicaid, Independent)
- Long-term care insurance policy
End-of-life and Estate Planning Documents You Need
When a cherished family member dies, it’s a sad and painful personal loss; but this pain can be compounded by the difficulty and stress of sorting out our loved one’s affairs. We can save ourselves or our loved ones this burden by making sure that documents related to estate planning and end-of-life have been drawn up, are up-to-date, and are easily available. For example, when a senior passes away without having drafted a will, families can be thrown into legal and financial chaos. In some of the saddest situations, the deceased senior’s children sue one another in a a bitter fight over their parent’s estate. Essential end-of-life documents include:
- Trust documents
- Life-insurance policies
- End of life instructions letter (regarding wishes not covered in will, for example regarding memorial, or items not covered in the will)
- Organ donor card
Other Must-Have Documents
Marriage certificates and military records are required when applying for veteran benefits such as Aid and Attendance, and are also required in applications for many kinds of state and federal assistance. Seniors may even need their birth certificate on occasion. For example, some states now controversially require that voters have photo ID. If a senior doesn’t have photo ID, and many don’t, a birth certificate is usually needed in order to get one. Here’s a list of some other essentials:
- Marriage papers
- Divorce papers
- List of online usernames and passwords
- List of safe deposit boxes and the location of their keys
- Military records
- Birth certificate
- Driver’s license
- Social Security card
Finding, Organizing, and Assembling Essential Documents
It’s not enough to merely have these documents. It’s important that they be accessible. Experts recommend that seniors or their loved ones keep all these important documents in one master folder or box. The folder should be kept in a safe place, for example, in a safe deposit box, fire safe, or with an attorney. Our quick and handy Essential Document Locator Checklist has helpful advice about assembling and organizing the essential documents we’ve reviewed.
Addendum (12/03/12): After publishing this article we were contacted by Julie Jones who has written a book called The Estate Document Organizer to help families organize the very documents described here. You can read more information about assembling these documents and order the book from her homepage at www.estateorganizer.com.
Are your important documents in order, or are they hopelessly disorganized? Do you have tips or advice for our readers? Are there documents we didn’t list that you think readers should know about? We cherish your participation and appreciate the views of each of our blog’s commenters.