It’s important to create an estate plan so your loved ones will know your wishes regarding your wealth and other issues. The first step is to work with your advisors to draft and sign a will, health care directives, powers of attorney and, potentially, trust documents. But there’s another critical task. You’ll need to find places to store estate-planning documents that are both safe and easily accessible.
What’s Legally Required?
There’s a common misconception that a photocopy of your signed will is sufficient. In fact, when it comes time to implement your estate plan, your family and representatives will need a signed original will to accomplish that purpose. Typically, the original document will need to be filed with your county clerk and, if probate is required, with the probate court as well.
What happens if your original will can’t be found? It doesn’t necessarily mean that your will won’t be given effect, but it can be a big — and costly — obstacle. In many states, if your original will can’t be produced, there’s a presumption that you destroyed it with the intent to revoke it. Your family may be able to obtain a court order admitting a signed photocopy, especially if all interested parties agree that it reflects your wishes, but this can be a time-consuming process. And if the copy isn’t accepted, the probate court will administer your estate as if you died without a will.
Where Should You Store Your Will?
To avoid these issues, be sure that your original will is stored in a safe place and that your family knows how to get to it. Storage options include:
- Leaving it with your accountant, attorney or other trusted advisor and ensuring that your family knows how to contact him or her.
- Storing your original will at home, or at the home of a trusted family member or friend, in a waterproof, fire-resistant safe, lockbox or file cabinet. Make sure trusted family members know the combination or have access to the keys.
What about safe deposit boxes?Although this may be an option, you should check state law and bank policy to be sure that your family will be able to gain access without a court order.
In many states, it can be difficult for loved ones to open your safe deposit box, even with a valid power of attorney. If you do opt for a safe deposit box, it may be a good idea to open one jointly with your spouse or another family member. That way, the joint owner can immediately access the box in the event of your death or incapacity.
Note that it’s generally advisable not to make photocopies or duplicate originals of your will. If you amend your will, having these outdated copies floating around can create confusion or, worse, an opportunity for someone to attempt to use an outdated will.
What About Other Documents?
Original trust documents should be kept in the same place as your original will. It’s a good idea to make several copies. Unlike wills, photocopied trust documents can be used legally. It’s useful to provide a copy of these to the person who will become trustee and to keep a copy to consult periodically to ensure that the trust continues to meet your needs. Storing digital copies of these documents online is an option, but you should make sure your family and advisors know where they can be found in the cloud.
For powers of attorney, living wills or health care directives, originals should be stored safely, but these documents also need to be readily accessible in the event you become incapacitated. So, for example, you might want to avoid keeping them in a safe deposit box, where they won’t be accessible outside of banking hours. Consider giving copies or duplicate originals to the people authorized to make decisions on your behalf. Also consider providing copies or duplicate originals of health care documents to your physicians to keep with your medical records.
Finally, when you revise your estate plan, make sure you destroy any revoked or outdated documents. Doing so will help avoid confusion or family conflicts.
Rely on Your Advisor
Ask your estate-planning professional for document storage recommendations. You may find that the most secure option is to leave important papers with your advisor.