Hands of a child and an older man on a table. (iStock)
Columnist

When you've helped with as many funerals as I have, you understand how important it is for folks to organize their financial paperwork before it's too late.

Maybe my story will help motivate you to gather your important documents to help your loved ones after you are gone.

My mother was injured in a home fire in 2014. As my sister and I were trying to figure out her financial situation after the blaze, we discovered she was entitled to almost a decade's worth of back pension payments she hadn't realized she could collect.

We had hoped to use the money to help pay for her recovery costs, but we faced the daunting task of locating all the paperwork we needed to complete her pension claim. My mother was in a medically induced coma so she couldn't help us.

But we ran out of time.

About two months after the fire, my mother died from her injuries, and her heirs -- five surviving adult children -- lost about $250,000. That's because she died before the claim was complete, thereby forfeiting the back payments, which would have gone to her estate. Despite our efforts to get my mother to share her financial information long before the fire, she remained secretive and refused to get a will.

Life insurance payouts all too often go unclaimed because beneficiaries aren't aware of the policies, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, which established a search tool to help consumers find lost life insurance policies and annuities (https://eapps.naic.org/life-policy-locator/#/welcome).

What about that secret bank account where you stashed your emergency money? Would your family be able to locate it?

To make things easier for your family, put together a binder -- or just write a letter -- detailing what you own and owe. Here's a list of the many documents people need to know about.

Your will/trust. Where is it? Which attorney helped you prepare it? Tell people where they can find the document if you prepared a do-it-yourself version.

Life-insurance policies. Don't forget to include any policies paid for as part of your employment-benefit package.

Veterans Affairs records. One summer my husband and I took care of his father, who had undergone major knee surgery. During his time with us, he shared with me a folder containing some important documents that he wanted me to hold on to in case anything happened. Among the items in the folder were his military-service records, including his discharge paperwork. Those documents helped prove he was eligible for military funeral honors when he died.

Marriage and death certificates. In fact, I also keep copies of old obituaries and funeral programs, which contain a wealth of information that can be helpful in estate planning. These documents can include maiden names and other family history you might need to hunt down important papers.

Pension records. Be sure to keep the records from previous jobs.

Net-worth statement. This document is the master list of everything you own -- bank accounts, home and vehicle titles and information regarding investment and retirement plans.

A list of outstanding debts. If there is money in the estate, creditors have to be paid as much as possible. Leave a paper trail so whomever is handling your estate can verify what you owed.

A list of professionals you've hired. Your financial adviser, accountant or insurance agent knows a lot about your business. These people will be tremendously helpful in assisting your personal representative or trustee.

And speaking of documents, I received this question during a recent online chat:

"My siblings and I are in the process of shredding or tossing a mammoth pile of old bank statements, income-tax records, and so forth, making sure that anything with a Social Security number is shredded, not just tossed in recycling. Since our mother has been deceased for several years, is it still necessary to shred her Social Security card?"

If it were me, I would maintain in a safe the decedent's death certificate, any military records and definitely the Social Security card. You never know when you might need the information in the future. An old insurance policy or unclaimed account might be located, and you may need to prove your mother's identity and your right to collect for her estate.

I've been writing about the need for people to get a will for years, and pulling together your important documents is the first step. Trust me, your family will be grateful that you made sure they can locate all that they need to handle your affairs.

Read more:

Let's talk about the Big Book: Everything your family needs to know when you die

How to divvy up the inheritance -- and keep the family together

What do you owe your children when you die?