Everyone maintains a collection of important documents – from birth certificates, passports and Social Security cards to bank statements and income tax returns – so safe storage is key, especially for estate plan documents.
According to Bradley L. Greene, attorney at the Lifecare Planning Law Offices of Bradley L. Greene in Lyndhurst, and Abbie Pappas, estate planning attorney and associate at Singerman, Mills, Desberg & Kauntz Co. LPA in Beachwood, estate owners should have clear documentation of where their estate plan is stored.
“First and foremost, it’s important for somebody to be able to find your documents if something happens to you,” Pappas said. “There are certain documents, such as your health care, power of attorney or your living will, that your loved ones may need at a moment’s notice. There are other documents, such as your original signed last will and testament. That may need to be filed with the probate court, and so it’s important to ensure that the document is well protected.”
Pappas said estate planning attorneys encourage their clients to leave the original documents with them.
“Many estate planning attorneys store original documents in fireproof, secure locations as a service to their clients, and will also maintain hard and electronic copies of the documents at their office,” she explained.
But when it comes to the debate of having an online copy, Pappas said it’s a given in 2019.
“I always keep and provide my clients with, both hard copies and electronic copies of the documents,” she said. “It’s 2019, it’s easy to make PDFs and there is no downside to having both.”
Pappas added she tells her clients they can share the documents with as many, or as few, people as they like.
“Some clients like their family members to have copies of the documents in advance, while others want to keep them very private,” she explained. “At a minimum, your family needs to know the name of the estate planning attorney that holds the full set, and how to contact that attorney.”
But it’s a common sentiment that individuals should not store documents in a safe deposit box at the bank.
“A fire-safe box at home is good but never a safe deposit box at the bank,” Greene explained. “Oftentimes, family members do not have access to a loved one’s safe deposit box and will not be able to get the documents out when needed.”
Greene said it is common for individuals to have safeguards in place when storing their estate plan, like looping in a family member.
“You do not need to give a copy of your vital documents to those named in them, but presumably you trust these individuals implicitly or you wouldn’t be naming them as your fiduciary,” he explained. “But, they do have a legal duty to act in good faith and your best interests. If they fail to do so, they could be liable for a breach of fiduciary duty.”
If one misplaces or loses access to their estate documents, they have a few options.
“The only original document that is always required is the will if an estate needs to be opened in court,” he noted. “In that case, the will would be redrafted, assuming the individual still has the capacity to execute a will. Sometimes a bank or other financial institution will ask to see an original durable power of attorney, in which case, a new original would be drawn up and executed.
“You can have more than one original power of attorney for financial and health care purposes, but cannot have more than one original will.”
No matter how one decides to store these documents, Greene said it’s a matter of using common sense to keep them safe.
“Let your family know that you drafted your documents and let them know where they are,” he suggested. “And, of course, make sure they know who your lawyer is and how to get ahold of him or her, should they need to.”