Storing Your Estate Planning Documents
Estate planning documents are only useful if the right people can reach them at the right time. You want to store your documents in a place where they will be safe, yet accessible to the people you want to be able to find them (and not others). What should you think about when deciding where and how to store your estate planning documents?
Organizing Estate Planning Documents
The first step in organizing and storing your estate planning documents is to identify just what constitutes your estate plan. An estate plan can, and should, include more than just a last will and testament. Some of the documents that might be included in your estate plan are:
- Last will and testament
- Durable financial power of attorney
- Medical power of attorney
- Living will
- Life insurance policies
In short, these are documents that your loved ones will need to access when you are unable to communicate their location, either because you are incapacitated or because you are deceased. They will need to have the original, signed documents; in most cases, a copy is not sufficient.
These are personal documents that you probably want to keep private until they are needed. If you are like many people, you might think that the perfect storage for your estate plan is a safe deposit box at the bank. It’s secure, it’s unlikely to be damaged by fire or flood, and it’s private. What could be better?
As it turns out, lots of things. Here’s the problem with safe deposit boxes: they are good at protecting documents, but that protection often keeps documents out of the hands of the people who need them. Let’s say you have a will that names your eldest daughter the executor of your estate after your death. The document that she needs to present to the court to be given authority to access your safe deposit box is…in the box that she can’t access until she gets the documents that are in the box (or a court order, which takes valuable time). And that’s only if she knows you have a safe deposit box, and where it’s located.
This isn’t to say you should never use a safe deposit box to store your estate plan, but if you do, take measures to ensure that your executor (or trustee, if you have a trust) can access it quickly. The best way to do so is to make your intended executor or fiduciary, or another trusted person, joint owner of the box.
Good Places to Store Estate Planning Documents
Keeping in mind the goals of security, privacy, and access (for the right people), where should you store your estate plan? You have several options.
With Your Estate Planning Attorney
Storing your estate plan at your estate planning attorney’s office has a number of advantages. Not only will your attorney safeguard your documents, they will have your most recent documents on file, avoiding confusion over which copy of your estate plan is the most recent. Importantly, most estate planning attorneys are also probate and estate administration attorneys. That means the attorney who hands your documents over to your loved ones can also guide them through the probate process.
Of course, for this plan to work, your loved ones need to know who your attorney is. Don’t imagine that a casual mention will be sufficient. You might want to send an email with your attorney’s contact information to multiple people close to you, as well as keeping a copy of your attorney information in your personal files. Most estate planning attorneys send out email newsletters; encouraging your loved ones to sign up for your attorney’s can also help to keep the attorney’s identity and contact information close at hand.
In a Fireproof/Waterproof Safe
Keeping your original estate planning documents in your home means that your loved ones will probably be able to find and access them easily. Keeping them in a fireproof/waterproof safe means that they will be secure, but make sure your intended executor has the key or combination needed to get inside. If you are keeping your documents at home, make sure that you destroy any previous estate plans to avoid confusion. You do not want your executor to find a previous will, assume that it is your current will, and administer your estate accordingly.
On File at the Probate Court
Many probate courts are willing (no pun intended) to keep your last will and testament on deposit. The fee for depositing a will with the court is minimal, and offers one significant advantage: a will deposited with the court will be reviewed by the court, and may have a presumption of validity when it comes time for probate. Having the will already in the probate court may help to streamline the process.
What happens if you decide to update a will that you have on deposit with your county probate court? You need to prove your identity to remove the will; then you can deposit your new or updated will.
Depositing your will with the probate court is one of the better options available. However, you may not be able to deposit your other estate planning documents with the court, so you will still have to find secure storage for those documents. As with other storage solutions, you should make sure the people closest to you know where to look for all your documents.
With Your Intended Executor/Trustee/Agent
Leaving your estate planning documents with the person who will need to have them when the time comes can be a good idea, but exercise caution. How and where will that person store them? Are you confident that they will be kept safe and private? How will you address the issue if you decide to update your plan and change your executor or agent? You will have to communicate that information; otherwise you could have two family members squaring off against each other in court, each claiming that they hold the valid will and are the rightful executor.
Digital or Online Storage
You can take advantage of technology and store images of your estate planning options digitally, using cloud-based tools such as Dropbox or Google Drive, or on a thumb drive or your computer (although you can’t yet create an electronic will). The problem is that courts may not accept these images as originals, so you will still need to store the originals somewhere. And if you decide to store images of your documents on your computer, you will probably want to encrypt them so that not just anyone can access them. If you’re not comfortable with technology, this might not be the best option.
No matter what option you choose for your estate planning document storage, communication with your loved ones is key. You want your wishes carried out, and they need information to do that. To learn more about creating and storing your estate plan, contact your estate planning attorney.