Where should you keep your estate planning documents?

You’ve likely put a great deal of time, effort and expense into 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 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 must be filed with the county clerk and, if probate is required, with the probate court as well.

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.

Storage options

To avoid these issues, store your original will in a safe place and ensure that your family knows how to access it. Storage options include:

  • Leaving your original will with your attorney or another trusted advisor, or
  • Storing your original will at home in a waterproof and fire-resistant safe.

What about a safe deposit box? Although this can be an option, check state law and bank policy to be sure that your family will be able to gain access without a court order.

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 If you amend your will, having these outdated copies floating around can create confusion or, worse, an opportunity for someone to attempt to use an outdated will.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 trust documents. 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.

Shred outdated documents

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 attorney can help you manage all your estate planning documents.

© 2023


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