For most people, finally establishing an estate plan is a big step that they have undertaken after years of delay. A second step is making decisions regarding the executor, trustees, beneficiaries, funeral costs and debt, and a third step is actually completing the will. There is, however, a fourth step that is often skipped: placing the original will and other critical documents in a place where it can be found when it is needed.
As far as wills are concerned, this step is more important than you might think, for two reasons:
- If your will can't be found upon your death then, legally, you will have passed away intestate, i.e. without a will.
- If your loved ones can only locate a photocopy of your will, chances are the photocopy might be ruled invalid by the courts. This is because the courts assume that, if an original will can't be located, the willmaker destroyed it with the intention of revoking it.
Options for Storing the Original Copy of Your Will
Because an original will is usually needed by the probate court, it makes sense to store it in a strategic location. Common locations recommended by estate planning attorneys include:
- A fireproof safe or lock box
- Stored at the local probate court, if such service is provided.
- A safety deposit box in a bank
There are advantages to each choice. For many, a fireproof safe is simplest: it's in the home, doesn't need to leave the house and can be altered and replaced with maximum convenience. The probate court makes sense because it is the place where the last will and testament may end up when you pass away. A safety deposit box also makes sense, especially if you already have one for which you're paying. Just make sure that your executor can access it.
By making sure that your original will is safe and can be found when needed, you don't just ensure that it can be used when the allocation of your assets and debt occurs. You also ensure that disputes, confusion and disappointment don't occur years after your death; while uncommon, in some cases, by the time the will has been discovered, the assets of the decedent have long been distributed according to intestacy laws and not the decedent's will. Intestacy laws are essentially the “default will” that the state establishes for individuals who do not have their own estate plan.
You've taken the trouble to protect your assets and loved ones by creating an estate plan. Don't leave its discovery to chance. Ensure that your executor or trustee can easily and reliably find it when it comes time to put it into effect.