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Wills and estate planning

How to build an "in case of death binder"

Death isn't a topic most people want to spend their free time thinking about. However, planning can help you do everything you can to ensure your loved ones are not left scrambling after you pass away.

One way to help ease the burden on loved ones in the event of your death is to prepare an "in case of death binder."

What is an "in case of death binder"?

A death binder or in case of death file is a tool to help you organize and keep all of your most important financial files and documents in one place.

These include critical financial documents, account information and passwords, as well as key estate planning documents such as your will, power of attorney, health care proxy and any life insurance policies.

The purpose of having this in case of death binder or file is to have another layer of preparation for your loved ones. In the event of your death, especially if it's unexpected, your loved ones will likely be going through a tough time.

Having this file on hand with everything they need to get your finances and estate-planning wishes in order can make things a lot easier.

Start planning

Creating your in case of death file is a serious process. So you want to start by planning first. Being as organized as possible during the process — especially at the beginning — can help, as it will likely take a few weeks to gather everything.

First, determine how you're going to organize your files or binder. Most people keep a physical binder or folder with files in it; however, it's becoming common to store files in a digital folder, as well.

Next, create a death folder checklist. This will cover all the important documents and information you'll need to get before you start. You can work off an estate-planning checklist to start building a list of key documents.

Here are some examples of documentation that could be included in your in case of death file:

  • Will
  • Living trust
  • Power of attorney
  • Life insurance policy
  • Birth certificate
  • Marriage license
  • Bank and credit card accounts
  • Loan documents
  • Automobile titles
  • Property deeds
  • Copies of keys to automobiles, safe deposit boxes, etc.
  • Account and device passwords

Once you've created your binder, it's never a bad idea to make a second copy. Some people will make both digital and physical copies, just in case, so there is always a spare if needed.

Get your information together

If you're using a physical binder, create a table of contents at the front to list each section and use separation tabs so everything is found easily. Since it contains personal information, consider keeping it in a discreet and secure location that you share only with those who will need it in the event of your death or an emergency.

If you're going to create an electronic file, it's key to stay organized. Make sure each file is clearly named. If you have a large number of files, it may be a good idea to sort types of files into individual folders within one main folder and have a short document that explains how to navigate your system.

If you're saving your data electronically, exercise caution when it comes to where you save your file. While cloud services are convenient, it may be best to avoid saving personal information to the cloud. Consider saving your file to one or more external hard drives and, again, make sure you share access information with those who will need it.

Once you've finished creating your in case of death binder, make a note in your calendar to update it yearly or after any big life events.

Let your loved ones know

Now that your in case of death file is finished, let your loved ones know that it exists. This doesn't have to be a sad conversation. Tell them as part of your estate planning process, you've taken the steps to ensure everything is ready for them when the time comes.

Many people will leave a few loved ones in charge of accessing the binder. It's also common for people to make a copy and give it to their lawyer or financial planner.

Finally, make sure you leave detailed instructions for your loved ones so they know how to access your files, especially if you're storing it electronically.

Discussing death with your loved ones can feel scary. However, if you take the steps now to get your estate in order and plan for the future, it can make a stressful time potentially a little easier.

Read more about what to do after a loved one dies.


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