Where Should You Keep Your Estate Planning Documents?

Where and How to Store Your Will

signing will
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As an estate planning attorney, I'm often asked, "Where should I store my will? Where should I keep my original estate planning documents?" The answer is really simple - in a safe and accessible place. But what does that mean exactly?

What About Your Safe Deposit Box?

Many people think that their safe deposit box is the best place to store their original estate planning documents, but this isn't always the case.

In many states, your family will need a court order to open up the box and locate your documents if it's in your sole name without a joint owner. Your loved ones won't have immediate access to your estate plan if you become disabled or after you die, at least not without that court order. 

If you want to place the documents in a safe deposit box, consider putting the box in the name of your revocable living trust. This way, the successor trustee of your trust can gain immediate access to the box when the time comes. If you don't have or don't want a revocable living trust, add a joint owner to the safe deposit box -- someone you can trust to get the documents to the appropriate people or person.

Readily Accessible Places

The most logical place for your estate planning documents is in your home or office, but make sure the spot is protected from fire and floods. A fire- and water-proof safe would be ideal, but if you do decide to use a safe, make sure someone you know and trust has the lock combination.

 

At a minimum, keep the documents on a high shelf. I've lived through Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma and several of my clients have lost their original documents because they were stored on the bottom shelf of a bookcase and destroyed in a storm. 

Resist the temptation to "hide" your will. People have been known to place their estate planning documents under mattresses, inside books, and even wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator.

If no one can find your will during your lifetime, it's not likely they're going to be able to do so after your death either. If you don't want anyone to see it, move it off the premises. You have two more options for doing this. 

Store Your Will With Your Estate Planning Attorney

Your attorney's office is the safest place for your will or other estate planning documents. At the very least, he should retain signed copies of all paperwork relating to your estate. If the originals are accidentally destroyed, he can easily recreate them from his copies and have everything resigned.

You might also place your will with the executor or personal representative you named in the document to settle your estate. This person will have the most immediate need to locate it after your death. Ideally, you've already talked with her so you know she's willing to take on the job. If she dies before you do, you would have to amend your will anyway. If everything goes as planned, she'll have the will at her fingertips.

If you've formed a revocable living trust, the person you've named as your successor trustee can hold on to the paperwork for you. 

If No One Can Find Your Documents

If your original documents can't be found after your death, the presumption will be that you either did not leave a will or you intended to destroy it. The court will proceed as though you died "intestate," without a will or any other estate plan. Your assets will pass to your closest kin in an order set by state law rather than by the terms you set out in your estate plan. 

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