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How To Keep Your Estate Planning Documents Safe

Written by: FindLaw Staff , Contributing Author
Reviewed by: Catherine Hodder, Esq. , Senior Legal Writer
Last updated March 06, 2024
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You give so much thought and care into preparing your estate planning documents. But once you do this, there is one more thing to consider. Where will you store these estate planning documents so they are safe and secure?

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Whether it is a last will and testament, living trust, financial power of attorney, health care directive, health care power of attorney, real estate deeds, or written instructions, you want to be sure your important documents are in a safe location, yet easily accessible when necessary.

What Estate Planning Documents to Safeguard?

Keep all of your original estate planning documents in a safe and secure place. Banks, courts, and other institutions honor the original document, so you want to keep it safe. Of course, you also want to keep copies of your estate planning documents secure as well.

In addition to your estate planning documents, there are other documents that you want to keep together and with your estate planning documents. These can be insurance policies, bank account information, including pay-on-death designations, transfer-on-death deeds, funeral instructions, and other instructions.

Let’s look at different ways to store these documents, so you can decide which option may work for your situation. But first, let’s address each document type, what kind of accessibility you might need to it, and if you want to keep it secure and private.

1. Last Will and Testament or Living Trust

Whether you have a last will and testamentliving trust, or both, keeping the original, properly executed document in a safe place is important. You want to keep copies in a safe place as well. The courts, banks, and other institutions require originals in order to enforce or honor the document. For example, if the original will is lost or destroyed, you will spend time and money to petition a probate court to accept the copy of the will. This is time-consuming and expensive, with no guarantee that the court will decide to accept the copy as a true copy of the original will. If the court does not accept a copy of the will, the court will direct administration of your estate as if there is no will (intestate), and the state intestacy laws dictate the distribution of your property. Since you don’t want this result, keep the original will safely stored. You should also keep a copy for yourself and give a copy to your executor or successor trustee. Better yet, keep a copy and tell your executor or successor trustee how to find the original and copy, as discussed below.

2. Financial Power of Attorney

You must store the financial power of attorney document in a safe place to ensure it does not get into the wrong hands. This document authorizes your attorney-in-fact to literally step in your shoes and perform all of the specific actions you authorize in the document. Most people give sweeping powers to their attorney-in-fact to act for all financial transactions. In the wrong hands, a person could pose as the attorney- in-fact and steal your identity, purchase real estate, open bank accounts, and otherwise cause significant financial damage to you. For these reasons, it is not advisable to give originals or copies to your attorney-in-fact. Instead, keep the originals secured as you see fit and tell your attorney-in-fact how to access them in an emergency.

Most institutions require the original power of attorney document and full identification of the attorney-in-fact before they will honor a transaction. For instance, if you authorize your attorney-in-fact to make bank transactions, you will want the power of attorney document on file with your bank. You can go to the bank with the original power of attorney document, and present it to the bank, who will make a copy and return the original to you. After that, the attorney-in-fact can sign checks as your attorney-in-fact, and the bank will honor the check.

3. Health Care Directive and Power of Attorney for Health Care

It would be best to keep your health care directive and power of attorney for health care in a safe place as well. Sometimes these are separate documents, and sometimes one document. The purpose is to express your wishes concerning medical treatment if you become incapacitated and appoint an agent to make decisions and carry out your directives if you become incapacitated. You need to keep these original documents in a safe place, but you also need to give copies to your health care providers, who in turn make it part of your electronic medical record. You should also provide copies to your health care agents so they fully understand your directions and their responsibilities to carry out these directions.

4. Life Insurance Policies

You should keep copies of life insurance policies and beneficiary designations with your estate planning documents. This way, the beneficiary has the insurance information to collect on the policy upon your death. Sometimes the executor will assist the beneficiary in working with the insurance company. Other times the beneficiary deals directly with the insurance company.

5. Investment, Retirement, and Other Financial Account Information

You should keep copies of investment, retirement, and other financial accounts with beneficiary designation information with your estate planning documents. This way, the beneficiary of these accounts has the information to transfer the account to the beneficiary. Sometimes the executor will assist the beneficiary with this task. Or the beneficiary will work directly with the financial institution to transfer the account.

6. Bank Information

You should keep bank account information safe with your estate planning documents. This information includes the name and location of your bank, types of bank accounts, account numbers, and pay-on-death designations.

7. Deeds

Perhaps you have created a joint tenancy with right of survivorship or transfer on death deed for your real estate. You want to be sure you keep these deeds safe with your other estate planning documents.

8. Letter of Instruction

You can write a letter to your loved ones to read after you pass. A letter of instruction gives further details on the location of things or thoughts you wish to express to them. Keep this letter with your estate planning documents to be sure that your loved ones read it when they are managing your estate.

9. Passwords

If you have a written list of online accounts and passwords, keep these in a safe place with your estate planning documents.

What Safeguards Should You Use for Your Documents?

Now that you have an idea of what to include in safekeeping your estate planning documents, let’s discuss what kind of safekeeping options are available to you.

1. Home File Cabinet

You might think keeping your estate planning documents in a home file cabinet is a good idea, but it has drawbacks. While it allows for easy access to you and your executor or family members, it does not provide theft, fire, or water protection.

2. Fireproof and Waterproof Home Safe

Placing your estate planning documents in a home waterproof and fireproof safe is a good idea. This way, the documents are protected from fire and water, and are easily and quickly accessible to you and others you trust. A digital combination with a backup key function is a great option to use. Just be sure to ensure that your trusted loved ones can access the safe when they need to.

3. Local Probate Court

Most jurisdictions allow you to file your will with the local probate court for safekeeping. This may not be an ideal option. You can only file your last will and testament, so you still need to figure out a safekeeping option for the other estate planning documents. In addition, if you change your will, and many people do, you must replace the will at the probate court, which is a bit of a hassle. If you forget to do this, it can cause a number of problems for your loved ones after you die. Note also that filing your will at the courthouse makes it a public document for anyone to see. At the end of the day, there are several downsides to this option that make it undesirable for many people.

4. Safe Deposit Box

A safe deposit box at a bank might seem like the ideal option to store your estate planning documents in a safe and secure location. However, banks have strict access rules for safe deposit boxes, even if you add your executor to your account. Sometimes, a bank will freeze a safe deposit box upon death and will require a probate court order to authorize access. If this option interests you, be sure to talk to your bank about how best to set up a safe deposit box account to be sure your agents and loved ones can access it as needed.

5. Online Storage

There are online document storage capabilities through companies like Dropbox or Google that can store electronic copies of your estate planning documents. However, you cannot store an original document online, so you still have to find another solution for your original documents. You will also want to keep your own hard copies that you will want to keep secure. Another concern to consider is the security of online storage.

6. Your Attorney’s Office

Your estate planning attorneys may offer to store the originals and copies of your documents at their law office. While this can be an option to consider, you will only have access during normal business hours. You will also want to ensure that the storage is fireproof and waterproof. In addition, you need to be sure that you give your loved ones your attorney’s contact information.

How you safeguard your estate planning documents requires careful thought and consideration as outlined in this article. You can decide which option best serves your needs and situation.

Create Your Estate Plan

If you still need to create your own estate plan, our estate planning documents are state-specific and easy to use. You can create a last will and testament, financial power of attorney, and health care directive with confidence that you are taking care of your loved ones after you pass.

Ready to begin your estate plan?

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