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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Preserving and Protecting Documents Is Part of Healthy Estate Planning

In the unsettled time after a loved one’s death, imagine the added stress on the family if the loved one died without a will or any instructions on distributing his or her assets.  Now, imagine the even greater stress to grieving survivors if they know a will exists but they cannot find it!  It is not enough to prepare a will and other estate planning documents like trusts, health care directives and powers of attorney.  To ensure that your family clearly understands your wishes after death, you must also take good care to preserve and protect all of your estate planning documents.

Did you know that the original, signed version of your will is, in many jurisdictions, presumed to be the only valid version?  If your original signed will cannot be found, the probate court may assume that you intended to revoke your will.  If the probate court makes that decision, then your assets will be distributed as if you never had a will in the first place defeating your estate plan.

You should keep your original will, power of attorney, and related documents in a safe place so that they may be located by your personal representative and agents if something happens to you.

Many clients plan on keeping their estate planning documents at home in a safe or at a safety deposit box at their local bank.  Storing your documents in a safe or safety deposit box, however, may prove difficult, and even impossible, for your heirs and personal representative to locate in the event of an emergency or your death.  And if you leave clear detailed instructions to several people on how to find or access your documents in the safe, you may be creating a risk of privacy invasion.   Also, if you keep your will in a safety deposit box, only the signers on the deposit box are authorized to access the documents you have locked away.  In other words, your personal representative or family will not have access to your estate plan and other important documents unless you have listed them as a signer and key holder on the box.

You can also have your lawyer deposit your will with the court for safekeeping.  A quick search of the court docket online can reveal if you have a will on record. 

You may also be able to store your will and other documents online.  Many large financial institutions have begun offering long-term digital storage of important documents.  However, any electronic version of your original will is – by definition – a copy, not the original.  So, you still must find a safe place to store the original, signed and witnessed will.  Online storage “safes” may be an excellent back-up, but you must still find a secure place to store the paper originals.  Copies of your health care related documents may also be deposited on a site like for safekeeping and access in case of an emergency.

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