Estate planning is an investment.
You spend time and money and energy to make sure all of the proper documents are in place. Once you have signed in all the right places and copies have been made, the attorney will hand you the originals. Where you put those documents is just as important as completing them in the first place. If no one can find them when they are needed, it’s as if you don’t have them at all.
In order to handle your affairs efficiently, your will and powers of attorney should be stored in a secure and accessible location. Be sure you tell someone you trust (executor, designees, et al) where the documents will be kept. If you choose a place that requires a combination, password, key, etc., share that information as well. On selecting where you will store your documents, you have choices.
In Your Home
Keeping your documents with you in your home is, in many ways your best option. A waterproof, fireproof built in safe would be the ideal location. However, if you don’t have a safe, there are other alternatives that will suffice.
A filing cabinet or desk drawer would be a logical place for someone to look for these documents. A binder with copies and other important papers can be stored on the shelf with notes on where to find originals.
Believe it or not, another viable alternative is the freezer. Important papers can be put in a Ziploc bag and stored in the freezer. Aside from a fireproof safe, the freezer is probably the most fireproof and waterproof place in your home.
If you have a secret spot to hide things that a burglar cannot find, chances are your family will not be able to find it either. Again, make sure you tell someone you trust.
Safe Deposit Box
A safe deposit box is not recommended for storing your estate planning documents. In the event of your death, the original will would be needed to name the executor to access the box. Additionally, the box can only be accessed during the operating hours of the bank. Should you need the powers of attorney, it would be difficult to get to the bank and put them in place when you need them.
If you do choose to use a safe deposit box, make sure your loved ones know the location of the box. Add a signer? What are the ramifications?
With the Executor
While giving your documents, especially your will to your executor seems logical, it is not a good idea. Your documents should not leave your possession. If the will is contested, the chain of custody of the original can come in to play. If another person has had the original, an argument can be made that the will may have been altered.
The exception would be the powers of attorney. You may want to put the power of attorney on file with all of your financial institutions and your living will and medical power of attorney on file with your doctor. In this way, the documents are in place where and when they are needed.
With the Attorney
Some attorneys may offer to house the original will in a fireproof safe located in their office. Again, you have accessibility only during operating hours. Also, attorneys are people. They retire, move, etc. and while your document will be kept safe, you may have trouble determining the location.
If No One Can Find Your Documents
Your family has four years after your death to probate your will. This gives them time to search for the original document.
If your original documents can’t be found, a copy can be probated, but additional steps must be taken to prove the validity of the will. There is also the possibility that the probate court can refuse to admit the copy. The reasoning behind this is the possibility that the original will was revoked.
In the event that the original documents or copies cannot be found, the court will proceed as though you died intestate (without a will or estate plan).