Put your paperwork on ice

Life's transitions are easier when essential information can be found

While some professional organizers get their kicks turning cluttered homes into tidy ones, Susan Rose Teshu's greatest satisfaction comes from combining "the practical with the pastoral."

Ms. Teshu, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., assists people in finding peace of mind as they prepare for, or deal with, major personal transitions.

This may involve helping seniors who are moving into assisted-living residences or nursing homes, people coping with divorce or illness, or people who desire to put their life possessions in order so that family members don't struggle to do so in their absence. "Being prepared for change is a gift to you and your loved ones," Teshu says.

One of Teshu's suggestions is to keep information important to one's survivors or heirs in a red pocket folder that's stored in the freezer.

As odd as that sounds, this makes sense for two reasons: Insulated refrigerators provide fire protection, plus they are very accessible.

It's critical that the few people who most need this information know where it is.

This portfolio, says Teshu, is not a detailed accounting of assets, but a compilation of contacts and essential facts.

It should include:

• A list of next-of-kin with contact information.

• Your Social Security number and, for veterans, military-service and discharge information.

• Employment history and benefits information.

• A list of all your advisers ( financial, insurance, etc.), with current contact information.

• A list of bank and brokerage accounts, financial holdings, insurance policies, and loans.

• A list of all property owned, including current value.

• A list of people holding your powers of attorney - both financial and medical.

• A letter of instruction with your wishes for a memorial or funeral service and information about any arrangements you have already made.

In making presentations, Teshu underlines that she is not an attorney - or an estate or financial planner - and that personal advice in these areas requires professionals.

She is a long-time member of the Ethical Culture Movement, which is dedicated to making lives and the world more humane and ethical.

She has conducted workshops for local societies on end-of-life issues, and done clinical pastoral education at a Boston hospital.

"Although my faith is very different from [that of] lots of patients, I was able to work with them and honor their beliefs," she says.

With few chaplain openings in the healthcare system, she's turned her attention to working with people in their homes and conducting workshops.

It was from a couple of end-of-life episodes in her own family that she came to realize the need for being prepared.

Children are often concerned, Teshu says, that they won't be able to find needed information about their parents, either after they're gone or when needed while their parents are living.

"To gather all your things in one place in order to have a better overview is really helpful to people," she says. "If you are making a list, ask yourself, 'Do I really want to have these 10 different bank accounts, or should I do something that is more coordinated?' "

In making a case for consolidation, Teshu mentions that comedian W.C. Fields was said to have more than 700 bank accounts that were never found after his death.

Organizing this information in advance, she says, puts everyone's mind at ease, plus it can save money by reducing the time an attorney or other professional needs to spend in handling estate matters.

"Sometimes people give a sealed envelope to one of their [adult] children," Teshu says. Others who may receive copies of estate-related information relevant to them, or know its whereabouts, are spouses, attorneys, healthcare proxies, financial professionals, and clergy.

Teshu points out there are estate-organizing portfolios and software on the market. All organization, though, is worthless unless information can be retrieved when needed. This is one of the key organizing principles.

Teshu says she didn't consider herself an organized person before entering the organizing field, and she thinks this helps her in putting herself in the client's place.

Helping someone to get their papers in order can take from two to 10 hours, she says.

"Using a checklist, there's no reason why people couldn't do this on their own," she acknowledges. "There's no need to have somebody working with them. But lots of people say, 'Just having you here lets me work on this.' "

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