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Blog: Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles
The Ultimate Treasure Map: Creating A Document Inventory


Professional organizers hear that call each time the phone rings. This time, the voice on the other end of the phone belonged to a lovely woman whose elderly father had recently passed away in another state. My new client now had boxes and binders and duffel bags full of insurance papers, trust documents, personal bookkeeping and pretty much everything except her father's fourth grade fractions homework. There was such a volume of paperwork, and it arrived in such a state of disarray, that it was causing her to feel understandably overwhelmed.

Modern life is complex, and the papers needed to manage the ins and outs of it tend to suffer abuse and neglect. My client's father probably assumed there was always a little more time to make sense of the paperwork. Elsewhere, I've seen clients depend on their keen memories to identify the location and details of important documents, but the vagaries of fate can be unkind to us...and our memories.

Today's post isn't about how long to hold on to your papers, or even where to organize your Family Files. Today is about making sure you know what documents you possess, where they are to be found, and what they represent.

Creating A Document Inventory

Use the sample categories below to take inventory of what documents you possess. A simple spreadsheet with worksheets for each category will allow you to update and make changes as necessary. Not all individuals possess or even need all documents, but hopefully these lists will serve as a trigger to help you craft your inventory and search for items that might be missing. For each applicable document, list the location and the date it was created or updated, as well as other essentials, as noted.

Location, Location, Location

If documents are in your home, specify the exact location, including the room and storage method, such as:

Home Office, in the Blue 2-Drawer Filing Cabinet, in the Legal Section
Master Bedroom Closet, in the Fireproof Safe
Colonel Mustard, in the Conservatory, with a lead pipe (Just making sure you're paying attention.)

For documents kept outside the home, be as specific as possible. "Safe Deposit Box" is not enough. Instead, list the safe deposit box number, the bank name, branch address and phone number.

If a document is located at the office of your attorney, CPA, financial planner, real estate agent, or even your brother-in-law, list the person's name, address, phone number and email address. It may seem excessive now, but in a befuddling emergency, or if you're not able to provide information to your family, the extra details will be a comfort.

And, of course, back up your digital document inventory, and keep any paper copies in safe locations, away from prying eyes.

VIPs--Very Important Papers

Review these past posts to help you replace any missing vital documents:
Top Ten Vital Documents--Do You Know Where Your VIPs Are?
More VIPs--Very Important Papers Beyond the Top Ten

For each of the following, note the document's location, as well as the license or certificate number (if applicable), and the date issued. In most cases, your originals will be in a safe deposit box or safe, so it's helpful to note the locations of the originals and, when available, certified copies.

Lifecycle Documents
Birth Certificates
Adoption Papers
Marriage Licenses
Domestic Partnership Agreements
Separation Agreements
Divorce Decrees
Pre/Post-Nuptial Agreements
Child Custody Agreements
Religious Documents--Baptismal certificates, religious annulments, Ketubahs & Gets (Jewish marriage and divorce certificates), etc., as applicable for your faith

Citizenship/Service Documents
Citizenship Papers/Applications
Social Security Cards (Remember, don't carry these around with you!)
Military Discharge Papers

Other Personal Papers
Immunization Records
Employment Contracts
End of Life Contracts--Arrangements for funeral services, burial or cremation, perpetual care, etc. If you've worked with an estate planner, these documents may be grouped in an estate binder.


Retirement Investments: These might be Qualified Retirement Plans through employers, Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) you've set up for yourself, or Annuities. For each (because over the course of your life, you're likely to pick up more than a few), list the following:

  1. The type: For retirement plans through work, note if it's a: Pension, 401(K), Profit-Sharing Plan, or ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan); for IRAs, note whether it's a Traditional, Roth, Spousal, SEP, or SIMPLE IRA. For annuities, note whether they are fixed, variable or deferred.
  2. The account number
  3. Login/User name and password for online access
  4. Contact information (toll-free number, web site)
  5. Names of investments held (i.e., the name of each mutual fund, stock, real estate address, etc.)
  6. The name of the Representative/Custodian; if it's an employer-sponsored plan, note the contact name/phone number/email for the applicable employer.
  7. Location of periodic statements
Non-Retirement Investments: This is generally all of the "stuff" that might be considered valuable by the rest of the world. If you have items of deep sentimental value, such as genealogical records or private letters, you might want to make a separate worksheet in your inventory spreadsheet for sentimental/personal assets.

For each of the following, identify where the statements and purchase/sale paperwork reside. Use items 1-7 above, but for type, specify investment types:

*Bank Accounts--List brick and mortar banks and credit unions and well as web-only banks, and try to recall checking, savings, money market, CDs and any other banks and financial instruments. If another financial institution takes over your bank, be sure to update names and contact data.
*Brokerage Accounts
*Mutual Funds
*College Funds--529s or other educational savings plans
*Custodial Accounts/Minor's Trusts
*Deferred Compensation Plans--If you have an agreement with an employer to receive a lump sum as of a particular date, note an estimate of the amount you expect to receive and the anticipated date.
*Stock Options

Other Assets
*Deeds to real estate/property
*Titles for automobiles, boats, airplanes
*Loans payable to you, by individuals or companies
*Other tangible assets--collectibles/collections, timeshare property, etc.
*Home Inventory--This document (often combined with a video inventory) is essential for helping you recoup losses after a disaster like a fire or flood, or after a home invasion and theft. We'll cover household inventories in greater detail in an upcoming Paper Doll post.


In addition to listing the locations and essential contact information for the liabilities below, create a summary of the terms of the agreements for quick reference.

Mortgages on property
Loans for auto, boats, etc.
HELOCs (Home Equity Lines of Credit)
Other Lines of Credit
Credit Cards with outstanding debt
Personal Loans
Ongoing Accounts--Household utilities (land line and/or cellular telephone, internet services, gas, electric and water), personal accounts/memberships (gym memberships, clubs, etc.), and any other accounts for which payments are auto-debited from credit cards or bank accounts or are charged on a recurring basis.


Social Security--List your Social Security Number and the location of your annual statements. If you're already receiving benefits, list the bank name, location, contact information and bank account number into which your benefits are deposited.

Military Retirement Benefits--If you receive a military pension, note your Veteran's Administration Number, your pension plan name/type, the bank name, location, contact information and bank account number into which your benefits are deposited. For reference, list your branch of the military and dates of service. Note: If you're currently in the armed services, keep the Department of Defense's Military OneSource number (800-342-9647) handy.

Life Insurance--We tend to collect life insurance policies over time. In addition to the policies you purchase, or are purchased on your behalf by employers, it's not uncommon to have tiny no-cost policies associated with credit cards and bank accounts, the purpose of which is usually to induce you to eventually increase the value by putting in your own money. Many of my clients have also unearthed Gerber and other life insurance policies purchased by their parents when they were young. Two different clients of mine, both in their sixties, recently came across "baby" policies and cashed them in for small, but not inconsequential, amounts.

In addition to all the contact information and the location of the policies, note the insurance carrier (i.e., company), the policy number, the exact type of life insurance (term, whole), the named party being insured, the beneficiary (primary, secondary, etc.), the cash value and the face value, as well as the annual premium, if applicable.

Health Insurance--In addition to regular health policies, note Medicare Parts A & B, Medigap, prescription drug, vision, dental and secondary health care policies.
Disability Insurance
Long-Term Care Insurance

Riders for art, antiques, jewelry, etc.

For the above policies, in addition to the contact information and location of the documents, note the insurance carrier, policy number and thumbnail summary of benefits.


Let's say you keep last year's tax return in your desk drawer, the prior six years of returns in your reference files and the returns dating back to when you were a soda jerk at the malt shop in a closet under the stairs. However you do it, document where those tax returns are.

Why? The W-2s in your tax returns contain information that might be essential for getting your Social Security and Medicare benefits. Why else? Tax returns tend to hold all sorts of gems about stock sales and financial history that might be necessary to your heirs if not all of your records are as finely honed as your document inventory.

Estate Planning Documents

In most cases, if you've had an attorney help you develop an estate plan or trust, all of your documents will be collated in a big binder. In theory, your attorney should also keep a copy of the documents. List both locations--for the copies in his/her possession and in yours.

Last Will and Testament
Trusts--Depending on the complexities of your life, these may include living trusts, charitable trusts, life insurance trusts and/or minors' trusts.
Medical Power of Attorney
Living Will/Medical Directives
Organ Donation Form
General Power of Attorney
Guardianship Papers

Advisors/Important Contacts

In addition to keeping track of each document's location and a summary of what it entails, your inventory should include contact information for all the experts in your life, including:

Legal--Attorneys used for estate planning, setting up trusts, creating wills, handling adoptions, etc., as applicable

Financial--Banker, CPA/Accountant, Certified Financial Planner, Stock Broker, Mortgage Broker, Real Estate Agent, Retirement Plan Benefits Manager, IRA Administrator, Employer's Human Resources Director, etc.

Other--Primary care physician, medical specialists, religious/spiritual leaders

Updating the Inventory

Any time you change insurance policies, roll a 401(k) over to an IRA, or experience major life changes, you should update your records right away. But if you've just spent six months searching for a job, battling your inner Bridezilla, or learning how to feed triplets, updating your document inventory is probably the last thing you want to do.

Put an Update Day on your schedule. Pick dates somewhere soon after you've completed your taxes, while your financial situation is still fresh in your mind. Plan a few 45-minute sessions over the course of a few weeks and review one category at a time.

Obviously, you're not going to create this kind of inventory in one sitting. In, fact, you might not be ready to put this together at all until you've organized your files and taken the mortgage paperwork off the top off the fridge and your health insurance policy out of the laundry room. But this should give you a start for figuring out what kinds of documents you have, what kind you need, and how to create a treasure map of your most important documents.

posted on: 4/6/2010 10:30:00 AM by Julie Bestry
category: Paper

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Discuss This Post

by Janet Barclay, Organized Assistant on 4/6/2010 12:37:45 PM:

What a fantastic list and some really important tips. For example, I know my filing system is sound and I can find anything easily, but what if something happened to my currently excellent memory, or (shudder) to me? Would my dear husband have a clue where to look for everything - and would he even know what to look for? I think my filing system is clear enough that I could create such an inventory in one sitting, and with your great suggestions, I really have no excuse not to!

by Geralin Thomas, Metropolitan Organizing on 4/6/2010 2:04:50 PM:

Readers everywhere should rejoice because this post is valuable and dense with the best information. I'll be sending clients to this post. It's really useful!

by Julie Bestry (Paper Doll) on 4/7/2010 12:01:51 AM:

Hmm, not the first time my writing has been called dense, Geralin. :-) But thank you for the high praise. There's a lot to take in, but it's scary how little info gets communicated about important stuff like this.

by Julie Bestry (Paper Doll) on 4/7/2010 12:33:06 AM:

Janet, one of the interesting things about a project like this is that no matter how refined our systems are, logging it all in brings our attention to things we might not have considered. When I work with clients to create document inventories, I always think of something I can do differently with my own (or recall something I don't have, that I'll need to add at some point in my life). When you do yours, Janet, why not come back and post in this thread to tell us your insights?

by Julie Bestry (Paper Doll) on 4/7/2010 9:25:21 PM:

Happily for you, Karen, Paper Doll does not charge extra for psychic revelations. :-) I'm glad to hear this is useful for you.

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Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles

by Julie Bestry

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Julie Bestry, President of Best Results Organizing in Chattanooga, TN, is a Certified Professional Organizer®, speaker and author. Julie helps overwhelmed individuals and businesses save time and money, reduce stress and increase productivity through new organizational skills and systems.

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