Gathering documents when loss is imminent

4 min read

Legal and financial paperwork to have in place

  • Make sure your loved one has appointed a durable power of attorney and a health care proxy, as well as drawing up a living will.

  • Find any disposition of remains document or final wishes to make sure their intentions are carried out.

  • A will is important, as are records of all assets and debts. Make sure that you have the relevant passwords for accounts.

  • Gather all vital records, and ensure that unmarried domestic partners are legally recognized.

Talking about end-of-life planning is never easy—and it may seem even more difficult or even indelicate when your loved one doesn’t have long to live. But having a conversation about financial affairs and last wishes while your loved one is still able to make clear decisions may help them feel more at ease during their last days. It can also relieve stress on the family and make a difficult time a little bit easier. Once the time comes, rather than scrambling to make arrangements and guessing where papers might be, your family can instead focus on comforting each other and planning next steps. 

Here are some of the important documents and other arrangements that it will be helpful to prepare or locate in these final months and weeks.

Power of attorney 

Power of attorney is a written authorization that gives a person the right to act on your loved one’s behalf if they’re mentally or physically incapacitated and unable to make decisions. Two kinds of these documents are generally needed at the end of life: A durable power of attorney and a health care proxy. 

Both are ideally created by your loved one when they are still lucid. The person appointed health care proxy makes health care decisions and coordinates care, while the person who holds the durable power of attorney makes financial decisions on the person’s behalf, including arrangements to pay for their care. 

Advance directive or living will

An advance directive is a written statement detailing your loved one’s intentions for their medical treatment. The most common form is a living will, which ensures their wishes will be followed even if they’re unable to communicate them. A do-not-resuscitate (DNR) or do-not-intubate (DNI) order doesn’t need to be included; this can simply be stated to your loved one’s physicians at any time and noted in their medical record.

Disposition of remains and final wishes

This document addresses preferred final arrangements, i.e., burial or cremation, and generally appoints a person to be legally in charge of what happens to their physical body.

The disposition document may also include preferences for the funeral and/or other services, as well as any arrangements that have already been made or pre-paid, such as funeral services and burial plot. In other cases, these preferences will be indicated in a separate document called a final wishes, last wishes, or letter of last instruction.

Last will and testament

A will—which names the executor in charge of carrying out your loved one’s wishes and details the disposition of their assets—is a critical document. It is important to know the location of the latest version prepared by an attorney.

If there is no will, it is important to contact a lawyer to draft one as soon as possible. If time is of the essence, you may be able to help prepare a holographic will (a completely hand-written document), but only under certain circumstances in specific states.

Domestic partnership agreement

If your loved one is your established partner but you are not married, or if they have a longtime partner to whom they are not married, the relationship may need to be outlined legally, if your loved one agrees that it should be legally recognized for purposes of inheritance and decision-making.

Many states recognize a domestic partnership agreement, which establishes property rights, inheritance, and right to make critical health care decisions that are otherwise only available to married couples and next of kin. 

Assets and liabilities

Any documents regarding finances, life insurance, retirement plans, bills, and debts are important to locate. These are often missed by executors and family members who don’t know about them or don’t know where to look for them. Any unpaid debt can complicate the estate, and any unclaimed benefits may end up going to the state.

It’s a good idea to create a list of income sources and assets (e.g., pensions, IRA, CDs, 401(k)s, savings accounts, checking accounts, etc.). Outline any current investments, including properties. If there is a safe-deposit box, include the location of the box and the key. Other important documents may include property deeds, car titles, and life insurance policies. 

Common sources of debt include mortgages, car loans, lines of credit, loans against the home, and credit cards. Less common are gambling debts and loans from individuals. 

Personal documents

Some helpful vital records to locate include your loved one’s birth certificate, marriage certificate, passport, driver’s license, divorce/separation papers, and Social Security card.

Digital identities

Many transactions and relationships are conducted online. Gathering any user IDs and passwords can help you identify assets, liabilities, and responsibilities that may otherwise be overlooked, especially if your loved one had chosen to go paper-free. This may include day-to-day payments, monthly bill pays, or other scheduled payments and receipts. 

Contact information

Finally, gathering contact information for professionals and businesses whose services your loved one made use of can save stress and time down the road. This includes their estate attorney, other attorneys, accountant, banks, brokerages, annuity/pension administrators, and insurance companies. It can also be helpful to have a list of the named executor, trustees of any trusts, and anyone named in the will. 

Discussing end-of-life financial matters can be upsetting, and it may even feel disrespectful. But not having everything you need can cause confusion or errors, which would be more upsetting.

As you gather information and locate important documents, your loved one may have personal stories that go along with decisions they’ve made and accounts they’ve opened. Along with any estate they’ll be leaving, you can pass these stories along as part of their legacy ●