Organizing data about your estate

Q: In last week's column you wrote about what information, papers and estate planning documents to keep on hand for my beneficiaries and how to organize them with a guidebook that I can purchase from the Hospice Foundation. Where is the best place to keep all this?

A: It has long been the custom for the attorney who drafted your estate planning documents to keep them in his office. However, some attorneys are finding this to be impractical and not a good business practice. In a recent blog titled "Safeguarding Your Estate Planning Documents," Kyle Krasa ( blog/Blog.htm), a local estate-planning attorney, says most law firms do not have fireproof storage.

Reasonable alternatives might include a safe deposit box at a bank or a safe at home. Other alternatives, which I don't recommend, include a pile on your desk, a desk drawer or a file in a non-fireproof file cabinet.

A newer, more modern and electronically enabled alternative is EstateDocVault, a service offered by Herald columnist Liza Horvath of Monterey Trust Management in Monterey. It provides you with a safe place to store all your original documents along with electronic copies of them. Physically, your documents are safely stored in a vault similar to the ones you might see in a bank. The electronic documents are immediately available to you at any time as well as to anyone you give permission to.

One great feature is that it allows first responders and loved ones to access your health care directives, names, phone numbers and documents, provided you give them a pin access number.

Q: Your column last week was a great reminder to get my paperwork in order and up to date. What do you think of me giving a copy of my papers and guidebook to someone out of state?

A: Great idea. That way if a natural disaster (flood, earthquake, tornado, etc.) occurs in your area, someone will have all the information they need to handle your affairs. You could place them with relatives or friends living afar who you trust.

Q: What about passwords and access codes?

A: Nowadays it is difficult to do much without passwords and codes. Whether it is changing settings on your cable box, accessing your bank or credit cards or brokerage statements online, withdrawing money from an ATM, or even using your cellphone, you need a password or access code. Keeping a list of these passwords and codes along with all the other information your trusted estate representative might need will save time and make the job much easier.

Q: What happens to my Social Security number when I die?

A: It dies with you. According to the Social Security Administration, your Social Security number is never reassigned. There are almost 1 billion possible combinations of nine-digit Social Security numbers, and less than half of these have already been assigned. The SSA says it issues less than 6 million new numbers a year, so it probably won't run out for another 90 years. It's likely that well before the numbers run out the government will have a whole new non-numeric scheme for personal identification that will better protect us all from identity theft.

Kenneth B. Petersen is an investment adviser and principal of Monterey Private Wealth Inc. in Monterey. Send questions concerning investing, taxes, retirement or estate planning to 2340 Garden Road, Suite 202, Monterey 93940 or