Just in the past few weeks: My wife, Georgina, and I made new investments with the money from maturing certificates of deposit. Our local telephone bill started coming from AT&T; Inc., the new name for BellSouth. The customer service number for our long-distance carrier changed. We switched Internet service providers and have a new account number.
All these changes have been duly recorded in the regularly updated and arguably most important document I keep - a lengthy file (at last count, 6,382 words) titled, "Read This If I Am Dead."
Meant for Georgina and our daughter, Veronica - but also invaluable to me by keeping important information in one place - this document:
Lists all our accounts and assets, including our home, credit cards and insurance policies, with a basic description, account numbers and contact information, including passwords when required.
Identifies individuals and organizations to be contacted when I die (for example, professional advisers and the Social Security Administration).
Tells where our important documents are, including insurance policies, birth certificates, Social Security cards, wills, living wills, health care proxies and our final wishes for simple and inexpensive funerals.
Gives information on matters that may seem trivial but could cause needless frustration in times of grief, such as how to run the sprinkler system.
And going beyond cold facts, this document allows me to write a personal farewell to my loved ones and my wish that they continue to lead full, happy lives as the best way to honor my memory.
In essence, "Read This If I Am Dead" is a living, loving and constantly evolving little book I write for my family. You can do the same using the topics I've listed as a guide. Or you can buy any number of "fill-in-the-blanks" books or software programs designed to organize your important information.
Among them, I've been most impressed by a new "Family Records Organizer" CD-ROM by Baltimore-based investment management firm T. Rowe Price Group Inc. Easy to use, interactive, educational and comprehensive, the organizer also beats competitors in price. It's free, and you don't have to be a T. Rowe Price customer to ask for one at www.troweprice.com/getorganized or by calling 1-800-538-2706.
With no promotion for the company's mutual funds, the organizer includes strictly educational tutorials, including four videos from T. Rowe Price financial planners on investments, insurance and overall estate planning. In addition, 57 text entries cover a wide variety of topics, from the differences between Roth and traditional individual retirement accounts to a checklist for assessing funeral services and costs.
"It is a great tool for consolidating financial information, and it can be of tremendous value to the people who care about you most," said Christine Fahlund, senior financial planner at T. Rowe Price. The organizer or a similar document also can be an icebreaker to start sometimes difficult but necessary conversations with family members about financial and estate matters.
As with any document you'd prepare on your own, you decide how detailed you want to be. I recommend filling out all the sections: personal information, investments, banking and credit cards, sources of income, loans and debt, insurance, property and mortgages, health and medical, wills and trust, funeral arrangements and a blank section for your own notes.
But you can skip some and also use a "fast-track" function for just the most essential information in each. Access to the program can be restricted with a password, and sensitive data such as Social Security and account numbers are encrypted. In addition, printouts can exclude this information if you want.
Humberto Cruz writes for Tribune Media Services.