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5 Steps to Organize Your Loved One’s Financial Records

Try this easy-to-use system to keep track of important data and paperwork

A daughter helping her elderly mother organize her financial records and legal documents
Getty Images

If your care recipient is one of those rare souls who has organized financial records, be grateful.

But if bills, receipts, tax returns, bank and retirement account statements, pension info and Social Security updates are in random order or stored in different, perhaps forgotten, places, do yourself — and your loved one, and the person with durable power of attorney — a big favor: Corral the paperwork and organize it in a way that incoming money and bills due will be evident at a glance.

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Let the paper chase begin.

Step 1: Get access

You or the person holding durable power of attorney will need access to computer accounts and financial records. Start by asking your loved one these questions.

  • What is your computer login?
  • Do you bank, pay bills or handle investments online? If so, what are the passwords?
  • Where are copies of your federal and state income tax filings for the last three years?
  • Do you own life insurance?
  • Who handles your investments?
  • Do you have bonds or stock certificates in the house?
  • If you own property, do you have a mortgage, home equity loan or reverse mortgage?
  • If you own a vehicle, boat or land, where are the titles or deeds and registration?
  • Do you have any bank loans?
  • Have you given or taken any personal loans? To or from whom? How much is owed?
  • Do you have credit card debt?
  • Do you make regular payments to any person, business or organization?
  • At which banks do you have accounts?
  • Are membership dues, subscriptions, donations or purchases subtracted directly from your bank account?
  • Have you been a customer of other banks or brokerages in the past?
  • Do you have a will? Where is it?
  • Do you have an attorney? Is the firm holding your will or other important documents?
  • Are your assets in a trust?

Step 2: Find and sort

Find the following and designate a place to keep and work with them.

  • Bank records and statements
  • Tax returns
  • Keys and combinations for safes or safe deposit boxes
  • Passwords for computers, online accounts and social media
  • Titles and deeds for any property
  • Stock certificates
  • Bonds
  • Receipts
  • Insurance policies

After tracking down these items, sort quickly, putting like with like. For example, your stacks might include documents; paid and unpaid bills; receipts; brokerage, pension and Social Security statements; medical expenses; and contracts.  

If information is stored in your loved one’s computer, back it up and print out important paperwork. Technology is great, but paper documents are portable and can be looked at anywhere, anytime.

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Step 3: Store for safekeeping

Put all of the above in a fireproof lockbox, along with any of these items you have:

  • Your loved one's will (or name, location and contact information for an attorney holding it)
  • Vehicle registrations
  • Social Security card
  • Education and military records
  • Marriage license
  • Divorce decree
  • Information about any cemetery plot, funeral requests or prepaid funeral expenses
  • IOUs and private loan agreements
  • Account numbers for all credit cards
  • Locations of living will and other legal documents (give copies of advance directives to your loved one’s physician and keep originals)

The last three years of federal and state tax returns should also go in the box, or in another secure place. Save seven years of returns if the person in your care has filed a claim for worthless securities or taken an unpaid debt deduction.

Step 4: Create a binder

How you’ll keep the remaining financial papers depends on how much there is.

If the records are small and uncomplicated, put each category in chronological order and arrange in labeled folders.

The easiest way to track accounts that change monthly and compare files quickly is by using an old-fashioned three-ring binder. You’ll also need notebook dividers and three-hole punch.

To organize:

  • With everything divvied up by category, put each stack in chronological order with the newest papers on top. Shred and throw out any bills or statements that are more than three years old.
  • Insert label dividers — one for each category that applies.
  • Punch holes on the left side of each record. Put them in chronological order in the appropriate section.
  • On the back of each divider, write related names and contacts. For example, for a section marked "checking account," write the local bank manager’s name and contact information and the number to call if an ATM card is lost or stolen.
  • Add new statements as they arrive. If accounts are online, print out the monthly report.

Each of these should have its own folder or section:

  • Pension statements. On the divider, note contact info for the firm handling distribution, the person in charge of account, and the job or union where the pension was earned.
  • Insurance policies, including life, home, vehicle and long-term care. Note policy numbers, agents' names and phone numbers.
  • Credit card statements. Note provider hotline for customer serivce and lost or stolen card.
  • Social SecurityKeep records of direct deposits or checks received.
  • 401(k) and IRA statements. Note names, firm names and phone numbers for brokers, financial institutions and financial advisers.
  • Checking and savings account statements. Note account numbers, name and contact info for local branch banker.
  • Bills such as utilities, cable, department store and credit cards, memberships, subscriptions and recurring charity donations. Note which payments are automatically withdrawn from a checking account or charged to a credit card.
  • Property taxes. Note amount and due date for state and local property taxes; number for tax adviser; phone number, email address and physical address of the property tax bureau to which they are paid. 
  • Warranties. File unexpired warranties for items such as appliances, windows, roof, kitchen cabinets, sprinkler system, security cameras, electronics, medical equipment, stair climber. Pitch any that are no longer valid.
  • Legal documents. Note location of will or trust, information about ongoing lawsuits or settlements, attorney fees paid and due. Contact info: attorney’s name, firm, phone number, email and web address.
  • Loans, including payment book if paying by mail. Note loan number; customer service number for loan holder; and account password if paying online.
  • Mortgage. Receipts, updated documents such as the sale of the mortgage, monthly due date, balloon payment due date, payoff date. Note loan servicer's customer service number.
  • Personal loans. Signed agreements. Note names and phone numbers related to loans, payments made.

Step 5: Keep track of receipts and money

On a large manila envelope, write the care recipient’s name, the year and “Tax Deductible.” Use it to store the current year’s receipts for your loved one's expenditures that are deductible (or yours, if the person is a dependent). Add new receipts as they come in. Record tax-deductible miles driven, tolls and parking fees in a digital or paper notebook, calendar or datebook. 

If getting your loved one's finances in literal order leaves you wishing for a windfall, here's another money chore to consider: Look for unclaimed assets

When a bank account, insurance payment or other asset sits dormant for a period of years, the institution holding it typically turns it over to the state where the owner is last known to have lived. There's nearly $50 billion in such abandoned assets sitting in state coffers, according to research by SmartAsset.

The National Association of Unclaimed Property Admministrators (NAUPA) says 1 in 10 people have unclaimed assets, and about $3 billion of that missing money is returned to consumers each year. To see if your loved one is among those due, contact your state's unclaimed property office (NAUPA has an online directory) or use the NAUPA-endorsed search site MissingMoney.com.