Organizing is a key part of estate planning

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.

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