Dealing with your loved one’s documents

7 min read

How to organize your document search

  • First figure out what you will need to find. A good place to start is their bank account, to see what they owned and what they owed.

  • Among the documents you may need to look for are: the will, any trusts, those related to finances, taxes, leases, documents related to mortgages or loans, deeds, titles, marriage certificates, birth certificates, divorce agreements, and death certificates.

  • Create a spreadsheet to organize information about everything you find, such as account numbers for all accounts.

  • Search everywhere you can think of, starting with your loved one's desk, office, filing cabinets, and safe-deposit boxes.

After a loved one passes away, one of the first steps in settling all of their affairs is to seek out and deal with the important documents they left behind. These may include life insurance policies, bank statements, deeds to a house or other property, marriage and birth certificates, and more.

It is critical to find and secure these papers to protect against the awful possibility of identity theft, help ensure the filing of accurate tax returns, and support the proper administration of the estate. Searching for and properly handling all of these papers can be a big job, so remember to take it slowly, and ask family members or friends to lend a hand if they can.

In some cases, your loved one might have had the foresight to collect their important documents all in one place—a safe, perhaps, or a single drawer. Often, however, such vital information is dispersed in many different places. After conducting a thorough search, you must either dispose of or secure each document, as needed.

What to look for

There are several different kinds of documents you will need to find, and in some cases you may first have to determine what sorts of papers exist, in order to figure out the scope of the search. For example, do you know if they owned any property that there would be a deed for? Is there a life insurance policy? A checkbook ledger, bank statement, or online banking portal can offer a starting point to determining these things, so locate that straight away to see what bills were paid in the past year.

Then, consider making a spreadsheet to organize information about accounts, such as member and policy numbers, contact information, beneficiaries if relevant, and more. Make sure you keep this information secure and private. 

After that, be painstaking in searching every shelf, every shoebox, every drawer, both in their house and at their office if they had one, to make sure that you have accounted for all important papers. If you can, enlist the help of a very trusted and trustworthy relative or friend to tackle this arduous search. 

Another crucial place to look is in any safe-deposit box, so be on the lookout for keys as you search. Depending on the bank and state law, you will likely need to have an original copy of the death certificate as well as proof of your relationship to the person in order to access their safe-deposit box. Many states will also require you to get a court order. If you do not have the key, there is also often a fee to open the box. In most cases, you will not be able to remove anything until an executor is appointed and probate has begun, but you can make an inventory of and photograph relevant paperwork.

What specifically should you track down?

You will want to track down anything related to your loved one’s finances. That means statements for bank accounts, annuities, retirement and pension plans, stocks, bonds, and anything else brokerage related, and anything having to do with insurance policies. In some cases, your loved one might have had insurance and/or pension funds through a current or past employer. If you cannot find the relevant paperwork, contact the employer to get copies of the necessary documentation.

Be advised that some people pay for insurance policies on an annual basis, so there may be no recent paperwork about a policy. Check bank statements going back a year to make sure you find what you’re looking for.

In addition, keep your eyes out for state and federal tax returns and documentation in support of them. You will want to have copies of these returns for the past three years, as well as copies of any paperwork related to gift taxes. If you cannot find them, you can contact the IRS and state tax offices to get copies of prior returns.

While combing through the piles of paper, also flag any prenuptial or postnuptial agreements, leases, documents related to mortgages or other loans, deeds for real estate, and titles for any vehicles your loved one owned. 

Finally, retain all marriage and birth certificates or divorce agreements, and if your loved one had a spouse who passed before them, any copies of their death certificate.

Search every shelf, every shoebox, every drawer, both in their house and at their office, to make sure that you have accounted for all important papers.

Don’t forget utilities and bills for other expenses

Making final payments and closing utility accounts is an important part of settling the affairs of your loved one. Be sure to pull together recent bills for telephone, internet, gas, electric, sewer, and water providers. At the same time, collect all credit card, storage, medical and funeral bills. Lawyers who specialize in estate planning often advise clients to get ahold of recent bills and statements whenever possible. 

Check the mail regularly at your loved one’s address, even if a mail forwarding request has already been filed; the post office can be slow, and mail may be misdelivered and pile up. 

Find the will

Make sure you comb through your loved one’s home to find a will, any codicils, any documents about trusts, and any other paperwork related to their estate if these are not yet in your possession or the possession of a lawyer or an executor. 

If you do find the will, it is extremely important that you do not alter it in any way. This includes removing any staples, etc.

If you come upon other estate-related documents that look like they might be important and are uncertain what to do with them, consider asking a lawyer for advice.

How long do you need to hold on to this paperwork?

The original copy of the will has to be filed with probate court, and must be kept secure until this is done. 

Birth, marriage, and death certificates, as well as documentation related to divorce, should be kept in perpetuity. Any document related to taxes should be kept either for at least three years from the date of your loved one’s passing, or for three years after the filing of an estate tax return, whichever is later.

Utility bills, credit card bills, and other such statements should be kept for the year your loved one died and, if income tax returns were not filed in previous years, for those years as well. 

It is very important that any documents you must hold onto are securely stored, whether in a safe, a lockable and fire-resistant filing cabinet, or a safety deposit box. Make sure that a trusted member of the family knows where to find the papers and how to access them in case you are not able to.

For documents you do not need original copies of, such as tax forms, you can also choose to digitize them and upload them to a secure online server. Do not simply take photographs of them and store them on your computer or phone, which may be vulnerable.

Any papers you no longer need should be shredded, either by yourself or through a service. Above all, you want to make sure that your loved one’s personal and financial information is not public or accessible, thereby mitigating the risk of identity theft. 

This task takes time and patience. Take it slowly and don’t pressure yourself to get it all done at once. And, as always, make sure you ask family and friends to help, and consult with an attorney if you have any questions along the way.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.