Where to Safely Store Your Estate Planning Documents

Your estate planning documents — wills, health-care directives, powers of attorney, trusts — are essential records that explain your end-of-life wishes and desires. Therefore, these documents must be kept in a safe location until they are needed. They are only valuable to you and your loved ones if the documents can be reviewed and followed when the time comes.

Where should you store copies of your estate planning documents? 

Where To Store Wills, Trusts, Testaments And Other Essential Documents

If the Brady Cobin Law Group, PLLC, assisted you with your estate planning, you were given copies of the documents. We have retained the originals and have them safely stored so that we may consult them as necessary. However, while our copies are secure, you should secure your copies also.

Options for storing your estate planning documents and other important records, such as property deeds, birth certificates, marriage license and passports include:

  • Safe Deposit Box. Many people think of a bank’s safe deposit box as the best option for storing estate planning documents. However, there is a major drawback to safe deposit boxes that often gets overlooked: Only authorized individuals can access a safe deposit box. If only you have the authorization to open your safe deposit box and you die, your family will need a court order to access your records.

You could register the box in the name of a revocable living trust so that the trust’s successor trustee(s) would have immediate access to the safe deposit box upon your death. But the successor trustee would need to establish their status … with a copy of the trust document. 

Another option is joint ownership of the safe deposit box, but that gives the other owner or owners full and immediate access to the safe deposit box’s contents. Some estate planning professionals advise against safe deposit boxes for end-of-life document storage.

  • Home Safe. You can buy a safe to keep records at home. You can obtain a safe of any size or volume and can even have one installed as a fixture in your residence. Most people buy a fireproof safe that is large enough to store the valuables they are concerned about but small enough that they can easily move and store the safe. Take some measurements before you shop. Get one that is opened with a key, not a combination. A key will still be around to be found when you are gone. 
  • Electronic copies. If you have a quality scanner and the time to do it, you could make electronic copies of your estate planning documents. Once you have e-files, it is relatively simple to make multiple copies on thumb drives or other external digital storage devices. Copies can be stored in a safe and distributed to family members for future reference. You may even secure cloud space for storage. However, technology changes. (CD-ROM was once the standard for document storage.) You’ll need to keep up with the viability of your storage medium.
  • Multiple tangible copies. The easiest solution is to make multiple copies of your estate planning documents and give them to trusted loved ones who do not live with you, especially the executor of your estate. The copies can go into their safe deposit boxes or other safe storage locations. They should at the least be put on a high shelf for storage above potential flood waters. Having multiple copies at multiple sites will help to ensure that your documents will survive you and be available when needed.

Making multiple copies of your estate planning documents for family members accomplishes the most important objective: making others aware that these documents exist and that you have made end-of-life decisions for yourself and your estate. 

What Happens If No One Can Find Your Documents?

The point of estate planning is to ensure that your wishes are heard and heeded when you can no longer speak for yourself. If no one knows that you have documented your desires about advanced medical care and distribution of your assets, the chances that people will do what you want is pretty slim.

If your estate planning documents can’t be found (or worse, do not exist), your family could have a legal problem on their hands.

For example, if you have been gravely injured in a car accident and your children cannot agree on what, if any, life-sustaining medical care you should receive, the matter may go to a judge to decide. You could wind up hooked up to machines instead of being allowed to die naturally, as your advanced medical directive makes clear your wishes for end-of-life care.

If you die without a will, or without one that can be found and legally filed, the court will appoint an administrator to distribute your assets. Not only will any preferences you stated in a last will and testament be disregarded, family members to whom you made promises will have no say. Your estate will be distributed according to the North Carolina Intestate Succession Act.

If family members know you had a will but cannot find it, they may assert the existence of a will and its contents to the court. This sets up a complex legal process for probating a lost will, which may be complicated further and lead to potentially long-lasting family discord if your loved ones disagree about the will’s contents.

You can help the people you care about avoid all of this. Secure your documents as discussed above. If you have not made plans, the Brady Cobin Law Group can help you. Our Raleigh estate planning lawyers have helped people throughout North Carolina plan for their futures and for the futures of those they love for more than 35 years. Schedule a consultation today if you have put off your estate planning.