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Where Should Estate Planning Documents be Kept?

We are frequently asked where our clients should keep their estate planning documents after they have been prepared. Some people have read that they should be kept in a safe, others believe that they should be kept in a safe deposit bank, others believe the will should be taken to the Court house where they live. In this post we explore the options.

The first question that should be addressed is what we mean by estate planning documents. This can mean different things to different people but generally we are talking about wills, trusts, any amendments to wills or trusts, powers of attorney, patient advocate designations and living wills, and HIPAA waivers. Essentially everything that was prepared when the estate plan was completed. It is very important that the original documents be kept together so that they can be retrieved if the need arises. As a matter of practice we maintain an electronic copy of the documents we prepare and provide our clients with a copy of the individual documents that might be needed most frequently. Those copies are for our clients' use to review or to provide to others as they are needed. The originals should be kept together.

While there is no single answer to the question for where the documents should be kept, we can assure you that there are a few places where they should not be stored. First, we never recommend that estate planning documents be kept in a safe deposit box if the box is owned by the person that executed the plan and he or she is the only one with access to the box. The procedure required to get access to a safe deposit box to retrieve estate planning documents can frequently take a week or more and it requires the assistance of the probate court, the local sheriff's office and the bank. It goes without saying that these documents are needed when they are needed and that can often be on an urgent basis. To have to wait for the box's lock to be drilled and for the contents to be inventoried can be a huge hurdle if a health care power of attorney is needed so that care can be authorized by the patient advocate. It is for this reason that we do not recommend a safety deposit box with only one owner.

We also do not recommend that documents be kept in a desk or somewhere they could be easily lost or misplaced. It is often the case, upon the passing of an individual, that the original estate planning documents cannot be found. Family members might have been given a copy of a will or trust but the original has somehow been misplaced or lost with the passage of time. This presents several difficulties with regard to effectuating the loved one's wishes, as it is never really clear if the document was simply lost or was destroyed because the deceased changed his or her mind about what the plan was going to be. Keeping them together in a single designated location is one way to prevent the loss of these very important documents.

What We Recommend

Over the years we have come to the conclusion that a safe or other fireproof container is probably the best location to maintain the estate planning documents as well as other important documents such as titles or life insurance policies. Of course, it is important that more than one person have access to the safe so that the documents can be retrieved when necessary. A quality safe is, however, the best, and most secure, location for important documents such as estate plans, titles and other related materials. The safe keeps the documents together, protects them in case of a catastrophe or fire, and provides a location for loved ones to start their search for the important documents upon a death.

It is also important to inform those who might need the documents where they are located and how to get access to the safe or fireproof box. If they do not know where they are located or how to get access, the fact that the documents are secured in a safe can be just as complicating as having them locked away in the bank.

In sum, it is important to remember that these important documents such as a will, trust, power of attorney, patient advocate designation and their related amendments should be kept in a place that is both secure and prevents their destruction. It is equally important that those appointed under the documents know where they are located and can get access to them should the need arise.

We Can Help

The estate planning attorneys of Penzien & McBride, PLLC have been helping families and business owners with their estate planning needs for more than two decades. If you are looking for a compassionate professional that can help you through the estate planning process, conduct a review of your existing estate plan, or if you would like additional information about our services, give us a call at (586) 690-4400 or complete our contact us form.