Creating paper trails : Having quick access to important life documents is crucial in the event of a disaster or emergency

By Theresa Walker : Freedom News Service

When it comes to life’s emergencies and disasters, we all need to start thinking like Boy Scouts. You know, always be prepared.

Maybe you’ve got 10 gallons of water stored away, along with extra food and hygiene supplies. That’s a good start.

But what about important documents? If your home and personal possessions are destroyed, do you have a paper trail safely secured that can lead the way to recovery?

Worse, suppose you face a serious health issue, or die suddenly? Do you have documents prepared to ensure your wishes are followed? Have you spoken with the people you intend to entrust with those wishes?

‘‘After (Hurricane) Katrina we had a lot of inquiries, as everybody else did. ‘What do I do about this?’ ‘How do I get my Social Security card?’ ‘I lost everything.’ ‘I don’t have my will. I didn’t have a copy of it,’’’ says Frank Edens, an attorney and chief executive officer of US Legal Forms Inc., which sells legal forms over the Internet.

In response, US Legal put together a guide, ‘‘How to Create a Life Documents File,’’ and made it available on www.uslegalforms.com (click where you see ‘‘Life Documents Package’’ in red).

We asked US Legal to outline the most important documents to prepare:
Letter of instruction

What it is: This letter will explain the contents of your file. It’s not a legal document. It’s a list of instructions to whomever will handle your affairs if you become ill or die.

What to include: For starters, locations of legal documents, such as your will; a contact list that may include names and phone numbers of close family members; prepaid funeral arrangements or indication of your preference; list of current assets and debts; location of investment account statements and deeds.

Why you need it: To help people find all your paperwork. It can save the executor time and money on accountant and attorney fees, for instance. Suppose you want a sibling to handle things for you, but he or she lives in another state. ‘‘Think about how much easier it would be to deal with if you tell them, here’s this, here’s that, I have five life insurance policies,’’ Edens says.

How to get it: Sit down at a computer and type everything you can think of that you’d want someone to know you have and where to find it. Or get ready-made inventory forms that probably include things you may not think of.

Last will and testament

What it is: You express wishes about how to distribute your property, who should care for your children or pets.

What to include: Where you want your personal property, real property and other to go upon your death; who you wish to be the guardian of any minor children; who will represent you in administering your estate. Some people also include burial or cremation instructions in their wills.

Whether or not you should discuss will provisions with family — your spouse being an exception — is debatable.

‘‘I can see all kinds of issues,’’ Edens says. ‘‘Most of the people I’ve represented in doing wills did not discuss it with their family. In fact, they didn’t want their family to know.’’

You do need to work out ahead of time who to appoint as guardian of your underage children. Consider who you trust the most, who your children would want to be with, who will keep them together.

‘‘You would definitely want to ask or say, ‘I’m going to appoint you as guardian in case something happens to us (or me).’ Be sure they are willing to take the kids,’’ Edens says. ‘‘Most people know. Most people say, ‘I want to appoint my sister or my brother.’’’

Why you need it: No will, no way you can ensure your wishes are followed. The state decides in absence of a will. It costs more, takes longer to settle, creates confusion and could lead to family disputes.

Do you want a probate court determining who should care for your kids? Family typically steps forward, but it’s better to work out those decisions ahead of time.

How to get it: You can hire a lawyer to draw up your will, for anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to several thousand dollars, depending on the complexity of your estate. If you have complicated finances or family issues, a lawyer might be the best choice.

Make-a-will software or document kits and books can be purchased in stores for $10-$50. Online services charge $20-$50 for forms that can be filled out over the Internet, downloaded or sent by mail.

Make sure you’re dealing with a legitimate company if you use online services, Edens cautions. Some phony company might just be fishing for your vital information.

Some reputable sites: www.uslegalforms.com; www .nolo.com; www.legalzoom.com

Some states recognize handwritten or self-typed wills, but if they aren’t signed properly they could be void. Edens recommends having such a will reviewed by a lawyer or a document-preparation firm.

Advance health-care directive

What it is: Also referred to as a living will, this document details your wishes regarding health-care decisions should you become incapacitated and have no chance of recovery.

What to include: Whether you wish to remain on life support; what type of medication you want to be given. Some health-care directives address only life support when there is no chance of recovery. Others discuss decisions to be made regardless of chance of recovery.

Think about how you define quality of life. Be specific with your directions. Talk with your loved ones and/or your doctor about your decisions.

Why you need it: Remember the Terri Schiavo case? A health-care directive allows you to make the decisions and appoint someone to carry them out.

Things can get complicated otherwise. Questions arise over who has the right to decide for you. Generally, the spouse is the first to make the decision, Edens says.

How to get it: Edens does not recommend creating your own health-care directive because of the requirements that must be met. Use forms that are easy to fill out and can be found online or in retail stores. Get it notarized or signed by two witnesses.

The California Medical Association at www.cmanet.org offers an Advance Health Care Directive kit in English or Spanish for $5, or contact the nonprofit group Compassion & Choices at www.compassion andchoices.org or call (800) 247-7421 for a free form.