Simply put

Twelve key documents you need to gather

By Brenda Spiering, Editor,

Comments (22)

Can you imagine what would happen if you died and your beneficiaries didn’t know where to find your will? Or your money?

It happens all the time according to Jim Yih, author of the personal finance blog, “When someone dies, there are a whole bunch of questions that need answers but the only person with the answers is not here anymore.” You really love your family and friends, says Yih, so take the time to get your estate organized so you don’t leave them with a big mess to sort through during such an emotional time.

Twelve key documents you need to gatherTo make sure this doesn’t happen to your family, always have the following key documents safely stored together in a place where they can easily be found:

1. Your will: Outlines who gets what when you die. It also appoints guardians for your underage kids. Without a will, your assets will be divided according to provincial law, not your own wishes. Worse, your kids might end up not living with the guardian of your choice.

2. A living will: Spells out how you want to be treated if you are unable to make decisions about your own health (e.g., whether you want to receive life-sustaining treatments like respiration or resuscitation or whether you want organs donated).

3. A power of attorney: Gives someone the power to make financial decisions for you in the event you’re no longer able to do so. Without this document, the courts will have to appoint a guardian to look after your affairs, and that can take a lot of time — and money.

4. Proof of ownership: Gather together all documents that show you own your house, land, vehicles, stocks and any other assets. Without these, your family might not know what you own or be able to prove it. Spell it out for them.

5. Six years of tax returns: Tax returns give your executor a sense of the assets and finances that are part of your estate.

6. A list of bank accounts and safety deposit boxes: According to the Bank of Canada, there are approximately 1.3 million unclaimed balances in Canada worth some $465 million. You want your family to be able to find your money — show them where it is by listing all your accounts.

7. Stock certificates and savings bonds: Hang onto your investment account statements and store them safely with your certificates (if you have any on paper), so your family can easily determine exactly what you own.

8. Pension, retirement and annuity documents: Help your family access any remaining retirement benefits they are eligible for through your retirement plan. If you’re getting money from an annuity, the contract will help your beneficiaries understand what they are entitled to and from which company.

9. Insurance policies: You bought insurance so your loved ones would be financially covered when you die, so be sure to keep copies of all insurance-related documents on hand so your family will know what policies you have.

10. A list of your debts and loans: A list like this will ensure your family won’t end up having any unwanted surprises down the road, such as debts they did not know about.

11. Marriage licence and/or divorce papers: Legal proof of marriage and divorce can make it easier for the executor of your estate and for your family.

12. Your user names and passwords: With social media and online accounts becoming increasingly important, you want to be sure your loved ones will be able to access your accounts.

Organizing these 12 types of documents should help get you well on your way to having an orderly estate. But maybe you can think of more — if so, I invite you to share your comments below.

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Klaus Theyer on

As a tax preparer I found Brenda’s article informative, well organized and to the point. There is one thing I would like to add: Include the location of the last two years of tax returns and Notices of Assessment. A tax preparer needs all carry forward information, which are available on the assessment notices to prepare a Final Return for deceased taxpayers Note: Deceased taxpayers are allowed to claim accrued medical expenses for the last two years if they have not been previously claimed, which could be a considerable saving on taxes.

Chris on

Nice article…author should though know that there is no such thing as a “safety deposit box.” It is a “safe deposit box.”

    Jon on

    The terms are interchangeable.

    Louise D. on

    I would add an accessible, up-to-date address book with the names of friends and acquaintances so they can be notified. A good friend ( I’d made as a teenager and kept in contact with for about 40 years) and I used to correspond faithfully each Christmas after I’d moved to another city. When I didn’t hear from her one year, I thought she might have gone south or her letter had been lost in the mail. I found out inadvertently some time later that she had died the year before.

      Paula on

      Good idea.. I would never have thought of it!

Mar 24: Best from the blogosphere | Save with SPP on

[…] Brenda Spiering the editor of has some great ideas for spring cleaning your finances. Begin by digging out all of your essential financial documents. If you are unsure what they are, check out Twelve key documents you need to gather. […]

Lois Saefong on

Steel filing cabinets are always the best choice. ^

Michele Schroder on

Having all these documents at hand has made my job as Executor this past year much easier than it could have been. It was already an emotional time and my saving grace was having a father that was extremely organized with his financial affairs. There was no wondering if I was missing anything, and everything was easy to find. The key was having all these documents in one place and having a list of contacts for every financial institution so I had someplace to start with. I have started to implement the same approach so my Executor will have an easier time of things when the time comes. I hope that won’t be for a very very long time!

Denise Barrett on

This really came in handy today! Mike and I went over this list before we met with our lawyer to have our wills updated this afternoon. Perfect timing! Thank you.

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