Documentation and dying: Help others keep your wishes

By Amy Geiszler-Jones | January 2, 2020

A body left for weeks in a morgue while a search is underway for a relative to claim it. Critical medical documents left behind when an EMS crew is called to take a patient to a hospital. Burial instructions put in a will and read later after the funeral.

Those are the kinds of scenarios elder law expert Michael C. Brown has seen during his practice.

He opened Elder Law of Kansas in Derby in September 2014.

We asked Brown to share some examples and recommendations of what individuals should do to avoid situations like the ones cited above. These tips are meant to provide general information, not legal advice.

• Put together a “Vial of Life” documents packet. To ensure first responders and medical staff can follow any special instructions you have when getting medical treatment, individuals should organize documents such as a living will, HIPAA authorization, a health care power of attorney and any other decision-guiding documents, like a do-not-resuscitate order. Altogether, those documents tend to be referred to as advanced directives because they convey your medical treatment wishes if you are unable to give informed consent, plus you can name someone to follow through on those wishes. 

Brown recommends requesting a Vial of Life medical information kit from the website,, which is run by a nonprofit charity. 

• Make an inventory of your assets and your creditors. Start with listing any real estate property you own and attach copies of deeds and titles along with insurance policies. Don’t forget other paperwork related to the property, like a quit claim deed or even mineral deeds. 

List all financial accounts information, including certificates of deposits and investment portfolios, and note what type of account they are. Remember to list user IDs and passcodes for accessing the accounts online.

To make sure your life insurance benefits are paid out, include all necessary information such as the insurer, amount and account information. Insurance companies don’t pay out unless a claim is filed.
If you have any loans, including credit card debt, be sure to list creditor information.

• Keep other important personal records to help sort your affairs. The National Institute on Aging recommends putting together any information and documentation, such as birth, marriage and death (of a deceased spouse, for example) certificates; divorce, adoption and citizenship documents; military records; and a listing of employers and employment dates. Recently the pension fund of one of my mother-in-law’s employers contacted her children — four years after her death — because her pension had remained unclaimed. 

• Create transfer-on-death or payable-on-death designations to help survivors avoid probate for assets. You can set these up for property and bank accounts. You’ll remain the owner of the property while you’re alive, and when you die, your named beneficiary can present a death certificate to get access to the property, such as a house, vehicle and checking and savings accounts.

• Draw up a durable power of attorney and a will. These documents are not only important in determining the fate of your property and assets but even your body if you die with no next of kin readily identifiable. Don’t include burial instructions in a will. “That’s the last place people will look,” Brown said. Provide any instructions separately as part of your other important documentation.

• Tell someone where you have filed all your important papers, whether it’s in a certain drawer on your desk, your safe deposit box or with your lawyer.

“Don’t keep it a secret,” said Brown. He shared the story that his mother kept a meticulous record of her property in a binder but when she died it initially couldn’t be found.

Contact Amy Geiszler-Jones at