In 2008, Jane Bissler, a counselor in Kent, Ohio, approached her then-87-year-old mother about organizing her documents. Because her mom was a widow with relatively simple finances and two homes, Ms. Bissler, 57, says she figured it would be a relatively simple task.  Instead, it took an entire year for Ms. Bissler and her mother to go through all of her papers, which included documents from eight bank accounts, utility bills from the 1950s and reams of canceled checks.

Sound familiar? Of course most people don’t like to dwell on the topic of death, but said dwelling is actually not required in order to make loved ones’ lives much easier.  A bit of organization and planning can profoundly simplify the paperwork burden for heirs, who typically will be left with sorting out the estate.  The sheer number of documents we have, and their complexity, keeps increasing.  We also store important account information and documents in new ways. For example, a document that the kids will need someday—once kept in a desk drawer—now is on the computer or online, locked down by a password.

Want to get started now?  One place to begin is a short article in the Wall Street Journal, entitled “The 25 Documents You Need Before You Die”.   The article has a good “heads-up” list of things to gather together, but remember, there’s no substitute for seeking advice from an attorney who specializes in estate planning.

-source:,  "The 25 Documents You Need Before You Die", July 6, 2011.