Let's face it: Few of us are as organized as we aspire to be. If my husband and I were to pass away tomorrow, we'd leave a small pile of unfiled financial papers, a recently updated will (score one for us), and numerous accounts with many variations of passwords, all maintained online. We do have a list of our major financial institutions and account numbers, but it was last updated in 2005, which, by my calculations, makes it ancient history.

We won't even mention how many times I've yelled across the house, "What's our vKey?" (That's the code Virgin Mobile requires before you can access your account.) Or how many times I've been coached by very patient account reps trying to help me: "Maybe your password starts with a 'U'?" And I'm the account owner, for Pete's sake. It turns out that my brain isn't such a secure place to store data after all.

In short, it would be possible for our heirs to get to the bottom of our finances and household affairs, but it would take some sleuthing. 

If you leave others behind
If you, like me, are a bit behind on the updating, here are some things you need to do immediately to get your affairs in order:

  • Make sure your will is current.
  • Consider creating a durable power of attorney and a medical power of attorney to ensure that, should you become ill or incapacitated, a person of your choosing has the authority to make decisions on your behalf.
  • Update the beneficiary forms on all of your retirement accounts. (Your beneficiary forms supercede your will, so pay careful attention to whose name is listed.)
  • List your major accounts, account numbers, and current passwords and store them in a secure place. (You might want to give serious consideration to storing the information on an encrypted USB flash drive to keep it both portable and secure from identity thieves.) Update regularly when any information changes. 

If you're left behind
How do you cope with the financial mysteries left behind when someone else dies? If the deceased didn't leave behind clear records (or hasn't updated them in a while), it's not so elementary, dear Watson. Here are the places to look to see if your loved one had other accounts, assets, or insurance policies:

  • Most recent tax returns. Look where dividend, interest, and capital gains are reported. If there are large numbers, then it's possible that the deceased had money elsewhere. For example, if there's $1,000 in interest or dividend income, that person had more than $3,000 invested somewhere (unless the investments were sold recently).
  • Statements of main checking account. Look for checks deposited from another bank or financial company (dividend check) or even direct deposits.
  • Safe deposit boxes at a bank. Look for valuables or stock certificates in storage.
  • Internet history and bookmarks. You might be able to see if the departed checked other accounts online. Also, your loved one might have monitored a portfolio through an online portfolio tracker.
  • Old filing drawers, desks, safes, hiding places, and recent mail. Obvious, I know. But maybe there are places where your beloved hid valuables that have been forgotten.

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This article, written by Elizabeth Brokamp, was originally published in July 2007. It has been updated by Dayana Yochim. The Fool has a disclosure policy.