The Personal Records You Need to Keep

We don’t like to think about suddenly becoming seriously sick or disabled. Yet it’s extremely helpful to review what you and others need to know if that happens. To have your “affairs in order” will help your family and caregivers as well as you yourself. The federal National Institute on Aging has a list that will help you and other family members be prepared for a sudden crisis. (And if you are caregiving yourself for a family member, it might be a good idea to tactfully bring up this subject.)

Put your important papers and copies of legal documents in one place. You could set up a file, put everything in a desk or dresser drawer, or just list the information and location of papers in a notebook. If your papers are in a bank safe deposit box, keep copies in a file at home. Check each year to see if there’s anything new to add.

Tell a trusted family member or friend where you put all your important papers. You don’t need to tell this friend or family member about your personal affairs, but someone should know where you keep your papers in case of an emergency. If you don’t have a relative or friend you trust, ask a lawyer to help.

Give consent in advance for your doctor or lawyer to talk with your caregiver as needed. There may be questions about your care, a bill, or a health insurance claim. Without your consent, your caregiver may not be able to get needed information. You can give your okay in advance to Medicare, a credit card company, your bank, or your doctor. You may need to sign and return a form.

Legal Documents

There are many different types of legal documents that can help you plan how your affairs will be handled in the future. Many of these documents have names that sound alike, so make sure you are getting the documents you want. Also, state laws do vary, so find out about the rules, requirements, and forms used in your State.

Wills and trusts let you name the person you want your money and property to go to after you die.

Advance directives let you make arrangements for your care if you become sick. There are two ways to do this:

A living will gives you a say in your health care if you are too sick to make your wishes known. You can state what kind of care you do or don’t want. This can make it easier for family members to make tough healthcare decisions for you.

A durable power of attorney for health care lets you name the person you want to make medical decisions for you if you can’t make them yourself. Make sure the person you name is willing to make those decisions for you.

For legal matters, there are two ways to give someone you trust the power to act in your place:

A general power of attorney lets you give someone else the authority to act on your behalf, but this power will end if you are unable to make your own decisions.

A “durable” power of attorney allows you to name someone to act on your behalf for any legal task, but it stays in place if you become unable to make your own decisions.

What Exactly Is an “Important Paper”?

The answer to this question may be different for every family. The following lists can help you decide what is important for you. Remember, this is a starting place. You may have other information to add. For example, if you have a pet, you will want to include the name and address of your vet.

Please remember to include complete information about the following:

Personal records

Full legal name

Social Security number

Legal residence

Date and place of birth

Names and addresses of spouse and children

Location of birth and death certificates and certificates of marriage, divorce, citizenship, and adoption

Employers and dates of employment

Education and military records

Names and phone numbers of religious contacts

Memberships in groups and awards received

Names and phone numbers of close friends, relatives, and lawyer or financial advisor

Names and phone numbers of doctors

Medications taken regularly

Location of living will and other legal documents

Financial records

Sources of income and assets (pension from your employer, IRAs, 401(k)s, interest, etc.)

Social Security and Medicare information

Insurance information (life, health, long-term care, home, car) with policy numbers and agents’ names and phone numbers

Names of your banks and account numbers (checking, savings, credit union)

Investment income (stocks, bonds, property) and stockbrokers’ names and phone numbers

Copy of most recent income tax return

Location of most up-to-date will with an original signature

Liabilities, including property tax—what is owed, to whom, when payments are due

Mortgages and debts—how and when paid

Location of original deed of trust for home and car title and registration

Credit and debit card names and numbers

Location of safe deposit box and key


You may want to talk with a lawyer about setting up a general power of attorney, durable power of attorney, joint account, trust, or advance directive. Be sure to ask about the fees before you make an appointment.

You should be able to find a directory of local lawyers at your library, or you can contact your local bar association for lawyers in your area. An informed family member may be able to help you manage some of these issues.

You also might try some of these resources:

Caring Connections

1-800-658-8898 (toll-free)

1-877-658-8896 (multilingual/toll-free)

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services

1-877-267-2323 (toll-free)

1-866-226-1819 (TTY/toll-free)

Eldercare Locator

1-800-677-1116 (toll-free)

National Elder Law Foundation

For more information on health and aging, including the free booklets So Far Away: Twenty Questions and Answers About Long-Distance Caregiving and End of Life: Helping with Comfort and Care, contact:

National Institute on Aging

1-800-222-2225 (toll-free)

1-800-222-4225 (TTY/toll-free)

To sign up for regular email alerts about new publications and other information from the NIA, go to You can also visit, a senior-friendly website from the National Institute on Aging and the National Library of Medicine. This website has health and wellness information for older adults. Special features make it simple to use. For example, you can click on a button to make the type larger.

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