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 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.
Where should you keep your original signed will? There are several safe options – the best choice for you depends on your personal circumstances.
You can keep your will at home, in a fireproof safe. This is the lowest-cost option, since all you need to do is purchase a well-constructed fireproof document safe. Also, keeping your will at home gives you and your loved ones easy access to the document, if you let your loved ones know where to find it. Keep in mind that neglecting to return your will to the safe after reviewing it at home, increases the risk it will be misplaced or destroyed by fire, flood, or someone’s intentional or accidental actions.
You can keep your will in a safety deposit box. Most banks have safety deposit boxes of various sizes available to rent for a monthly fee. Banks, of course, tend to be more secure than private homes, which is one primary advantage. However, upon the death of the owner of a safety deposit box a court order appointing a Personal Representative may be required by the bank to access the contents. This can cause problems when your will is needed to obtain that court order.
Some law firms offer to keep your original will and other estate planning documents at their office. However, keep in mind that the law firm may dissolve before your death, which can make it difficult to track down your will, and your family may not know which law firm you used.
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.