As a vice president at Exchange Bank, Debbie Kelley administers trusts and estates for people who typically have compiled the key financial and personal documents of their lives.

But on occasion the bank finds itself named executor for a deceased person who never passed along much information on the extent of his or her estate.

"We just go to the person's home and scavenger hunt (for documents)," Kelley said. "It's becoming more and more challenging because more people are doing things online and we don't have the passwords."

Financial experts say you can save your loved ones a lot of time and angst by organizing important documents before you die and letting someone you trust know where to find them.

"If you want to give a generous gift to your heirs, in addition to money, you might consider giving them the gift of time saved and stress reduction and peace of mind," said Julie Jones of Sonoma, the creator of the Estate Documents Organizer, a 90-page records binder.

The important documents typically include wills, bank accounts, property deeds, individual retirement accounts, life insurance policies and tax returns. But in the digital age, it also can include computer passwords, PIN numbers and details about your various online financial and social networking accounts.

Unless a person organizes such documents and conveys their location to loved ones, the heirs are left "trying to guess where they might be stored," said Christina Clem, a spokeswoman with the American Association of Retired Persons.

Without these documents, family members may fail to find important items.

As an example, Clem recalled how her grandmother died in 1998. Nearly 14 years later, a life insurance company contacted Clem and her brother about a policy that their grandmother had obtained, one the remaining family members knew nothing about. The grandchildren eventually received the policy's proceeds, but only because the company had reached out to them.

Before you can organize documents, however, you have to make sure you have an estate plan.

An estimated 120 million Americans don't have an up-to-date estate plan, according to the National Association of Estate Planners & Councils.

Part of the planning process involves creating a will or revocable living trust. Experts also advise spelling out who, if needed, will help administer your finances or make key health care decisions for you. The related documents are called respectively a durable power of attorney and an advance health care directive.

Creating the will or trust often prompts the gathering of key documents. Experts advised gathering all the needed documents in a few key places and then compiling a list of where each item can be found.

They also urged caution about keeping wills and some other key documents in safe-deposit boxes without a sure way to prevent the sealing of the box at the time of death. The inability to get access to the original will can cause lengthy delays for disposing of the estate.

"It took a year to get a court order in San Francisco" to open a safe-deposit box for one estate, recalled Gregg Clarke, a certified financial planner and the owner of Meritas Wealth Management, with offices in Santa Rosa and Larkspur.

Some experts recommended making and storing digital copies of key documents — a service some financial and legal firms now provide.

Others noted that the list of online accounts and passwords can get pretty extensive. One dilemma is how to compile that list and yet ensure that it never falls into the wrong hands.

Several experts recommended keeping some critical documents at home in a fireproof box or safe. The AARP recommends such safekeeping for wills, trusts, insurance policies and financial and medical powers of attorney.

After the documents are organized and a list of them is compiled, consider having a conversation with family members about your intentions. Such conversations can help siblings better get along when the time comes to divide the estate because they know "it was Mom or Dad's wishes," Clarke said.

Jones, a retired promotions coordinator for KGO-TV, said one estranged mother and daughter were able to reconcile after they talked with her about using her documents organizer. The mother had thought she needed an outside party to act as her executor, but after the meeting the woman revised her will to allow the daughter to play that role.

"The mother got a new perspective on the daughter's ability to take responsibility," said Jones, who will teach classes on organizing such documents this fall with the Santa Rosa city recreation department.

The initial organization isn't the end of the job, experts said. People still need to review and occasionally revise certain documents. Some recommended looking matters over each year at tax time.

Valentino Sabuco, a Rohnert Park financial advisor and the former director of the education foundation for the National Association of Estate Planners & Councils, said one "horror story" involves people who have divorced but left their ex-spouses as the beneficiaries of their life insurance policies or retirement plans.

For example, a man may have remarried and written a new will that leaves everything to his new wife. But he hasn't made changes to the life insurance policy.

"So he croaks and the beneficiary is still the prior spouse," Sabuco said. In such cases, he said, the proceeds go to the ex.

Joanne Harris, an attorney with Friedemann Goldberg in Santa Rosa and San Francisco, said heirs aren't the only ones who benefit from estate planning and gathering the needed documents. So does the person who knows his or her wishes will be carried out without creating undue stress on loved ones.

"It creates a tremendous amount of peace in your lifetime when you've got this organized," Harris said.