If you’re reading this, you’ve likely put a great deal of time, effort and expense into designing and implementing an estate plan that meets your goals. But unless your loved ones know that these documents exist — and how to find and access them — your well-laid plans can be derailed. Following are some tips on how, and where, to store critical estate-planning documents.
Handle an original will with care
There’s a common misconception that a photocopy of your signed last will and testament is sufficient. In fact, when it comes time to implement your plan, your family and representatives will need a signed original will to accomplish that purpose. Additionally, if probate is required, the original document must be filed with the probate court.
What happens if your original will isn’t 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 costly, time-consuming process. And if the copy isn’t accepted, the probate court will administer your estate as if you died without a will.
To avoid these issues, be sure that your original will is stored in a safe place and that your family knows how to access it.
Storage options include:
- Leaving your original will with your accountant, attorney or another trusted advisor and ensuring that your family knows how to contact him or her. However, you should ensure that the trusted advisor has a procedure for safekeeping estate planning documents before leaving your original will with him or her.
- Storing your original will at home (or at the home of a trusted family member) in a waterproof, fire-resistant safe, lockbox or file cabinet and ensuring that trusted family members know the combination or have access to the keys.
What about safe deposit boxes? Although this can 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. It may be preferable, therefore, to keep your original will at home or with a trusted advisor or family member. If you do opt for a safe deposit box, it may be a good idea to open one jointly with your spouse or another trusted 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.
Other important documents
Original trust documents should be kept in the same place as your original will. It’s also a good idea to make several copies. Unlike a will, it’s possible to use a photocopy of a trust. Plus, it’s useful to provide a copy 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.
For powers of attorney, living wills or health care directives, originals should be stored safely, but it’s also critical for these documents to be readily accessible in the event you become incapacitated. So, for example, you might want to avoid keeping these documents 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.
Shred outdated docs
One last thing to keep in mind when you revise your estate plan: destroy any revoked or outdated documents. Doing so will help avoid confusion or family conflicts. Your estate planning advisor can help you manage all your estate planning documents.