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Making an estate plan is essential to your family’s future security and peace of mind. But simply making an estate plan isn’t enough; when the time comes, your family will need to be able to easily locate and access your estate planning documents.
For many people, the decision about where to keep estate planning documents is a sensitive one. On the one hand, you want your family to be able to get to the documents when they are needed. On the other hand, you may want to keep information about your estate plan and your assets private until then—and you will certainly want to keep them safe. Let’s talk about where you should store your estate planning documents, and why one popular storage option could be a very bad idea.
First, let’s discuss where you probably shouldn’t keep your estate plan—and the answer may surprise you. Many people think that keeping their estate plan in a safe deposit box at their bank is a good option. There are certainly some advantages to doing this, but they are usually outweighed by one large disadvantage.
The advantages, of course, include security. A safe deposit box protects your estate plan from being lost or destroyed, and it is arguably a logical place for your family members to look for important documents. The problem with a safe deposit box is that only authorized individuals can access the box. If you are the owner of the box, and you are deceased, and the only documents that could grant someone else authority to access the box are locked in the box, you can see the dilemma.
In short, you should only store your estate plan in a safe deposit box if it is jointly owned with another person, meaning that that person can also access the box. Otherwise, your family may have to go through a complicated legal process simply to get their hands on your will or trust. And that’s if they know you have a safe deposit box, and where it is located. If they don’t, they may assume that you died intestate.
Fortunately, there are better options for storing estate plan documents. One of them is at home, wherever you store your other important documents: a filing plan, a safe, or a desk drawer. These are also logical places for your family to look, and much easier to access than a safe deposit box (as long as your family has the combination to the safe, or the key for the safe or desk). However, that ease of access also means that someone could find your estate plan before you are ready for them to see it.
Home storage of your estate planning documents is a good option if you are reasonably organized, so that your documents can be found when needed; if you trust your family to respect your privacy; and if you are confident that your storage system will protect your documents from accidental destruction, such as by fire or flooding.
If you have concerns about the safety or privacy of storing your estate plan at home, or about your family’s ability to access your plan when the time comes, consider filing your will with your local probate court.
Filing your will with the court has multiple benefits. The will remains confidential during your lifetime, and therefore is not accessible to the public. Yet the document will be readily accessible to your family when needed. And, of course, in the courthouse, it will be stored safely. But perhaps the greatest advantage of filing your will with the court is the fact that doing so reduces the likelihood of challenges to the authenticity or validity of the will. This prevents a difficult start to the probate process. Of course, if you make a subsequent will, be sure to file that one with the court and have the previous will destroyed.
No matter where you decide to store your estate plan, make sure that the people closest to you (including your intended personal representative) know when you made it and where it is. Although the making of a new will automatically revokes an old one, destroy any old wills as soon as you execute a new one, so there will be no confusion as to whether the will they find is the most recent one.
Ensure that your loved ones have your attorney’s business card so that they know who helped you prepare the will, and can get help from your attorney for the probate process. Consider emailing your loved ones a link to your attorney’s website as well.
If you store your will at home, have a copy of the attorney business card attached to the will, and give your closest family members copies of the attorney business card. If you decide to file your estate plan with the probate court, make sure that your family is aware of that information; tell them, send them a letter and/or email, and put a note with your important papers where they will easily find it after your death.
Although you may wish to keep the details of your estate plan private during your lifetime, there is some information you should share with your family. Ideally, you should communicate with them about the fundamentals of your plan: what documents you have (will, trust, powers of attorney and advance directives) and whom you have chosen to serve as your personal representative, trustee, or agent. They will rest easier knowing that you have planned for your future, and you will feel better knowing they have access to the help they will need to manage your estate.
To learn more about options for storing your estate plan or getting help with probate, contact Mundahl Law at 763-575-7930.