Check out our gallery to see how many of these 10 must-have documents are in your possession -- and which ones it's time for you to take action on. Having them handy is bound to help you sleep better at night.
1. Living Will and Health Care Proxy
These are two different forms, but they serve similar purposes. A living will expresses your preferences about treatments should you be unable to communicate with your family and doctors. If you'd rather not be kept alive by extraordinary means for more than a month, for example, you can make those wishes known. Contrariwise, if you want your life prolonged by any means available, for as long as possible, no matter what your condition, you can make that clear, too.
A health care proxy gives someone else the power to make health care decisions for you if you become incapacitated. Many hospitals provide these forms free of charge.
2. A Will
Unless you want the state you live in deciding what happens to your possessions, it's important to have a will. If your situation is fairly straightforward, you might be able to create one quickly and inexpensively with software such as Quicken's WillMaker Plus. However, it's often smarter to consult a professional about your situation to ensure that all of your wishes are addressed and that your will conforms with your state's laws. A lawyer can easily prepare a will for you, often for just a few hundred dollars.
3. Durable Power of Attorney
This authorizes someone you trust to make financial and legal decisions for you if you can't make them for yourself. Taking this step can be critical, even if you're just unconscious temporarily (say for a few weeks) because of a post-surgery complication. You may need someone to close on a home you're selling, or deal with a credit card company. The paperwork involved is minimal, and the potential value of having this document in place is significant.
4. Estate Plan
It's not just the rich who need estate plans -- anyone who has assets that they hope to pass on to their heirs needs one. It's a matter of figuring out how to structure and arrange those assets so that you can leave your loved ones as much as possible, on your own terms.
5. Homeowner's or Renter's Insurance
You probably know that you need homeowner's insurance if you own a home. But you may not realize that you can -- and should -- get insurance even if you rent. If your apartment is flooded, for example, your landlord isn't likely to reimburse you for damaged books and musical instruments.
Even if you have insurance on your home, don't be complacent. Check it every year or two. Is the amount you're covered for still reasonable? If materials costs have soared, it may cost a lot more than you and your insurer originally expected to rebuild your home if necessary. Also, if you've made major home improvements, you may want to increase your coverage.
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6. Brokerage Statements
We include brokerage statements here because at The Motley Fool, we believe most Americans should be invested in the stock market to some degree. You needn't have all your net worth tied up in stocks, but compared to most other alternatives, stocks have proven to be a good way to build long-term wealth.
7. Credit Reports
With Americans using credit cards more than ever, it's critical to maintain a good credit history. Sometimes, though, credit reports contain errors -- and it's within your power to get them fixed. But if you don't make sure your credit report is accurate, you may lose out on the best available interest rate on a mortgage or a car loan, a mistake which could cost you thousands of dollars. Poor credit scores are even costing people job offers -- some employers are now checking applicants' credit histories.
8. A Financial Manifesto for Couples
If you're in a committed relationship, you need to have a financial heart-to-heart with your partner. Too many couples avoid these conversations and end up in trouble.
Get your plan on paper (here's how to do it together -- and painlessly) and the next time you feel a money tiff coming on, remind yourselves that you really are a great team by reviewing the life goals you set together.
9. Retirement Plan
When it comes to retirement, too many people are just crossing their fingers and hoping for the best. But most of us still have a fighting chance at making our golden years secure -- if we plan and take action now.
10. A List of Things You Want to Do in Life
This last item may seem corny, but if you fail to pay attention to what you'd really like to do in life, you may find yourself one day on your deathbed, full of regrets. This list will be a lot more fun to compile than a collection of hymns for your funeral, or how you might like your obituary to read. Think about the accomplishments you'd like to check off your bucket list, and start working on it right away.