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 easy access in case you want to make changes to the document. There are two main disadvantages to keeping your will at home:
- You may neglect to return your will to the safe after reviewing it at home, which increases the risk it will be destroyed by fire, flood, or someone's intentional or accidental actions.
- Your will could be difficult to find in the event of your death, unless you give clear instructions to several people on how to find it, which then creates a risk of privacy invasion.
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. Also, if you keep your will in a safety deposit box, then after your death, only the Executor of your estate may access the original will. Thus, the will is strongly protected against alteration or destruction, because family members may have access to a copy but only the Executor will have access to the all-important original.
If you do keep your will and other estate planning documents in a safety deposit box, try to do so at the same bank where you keep your accounts and inform your executor of its location. This will streamline the financial accounting process.
You can also keep your original will and other estate planning documents at your lawyer's office. Law firms often have systems for long-term document storage. However, keep in mind that the law firm may dissolve before the willmaker's death, which can make it difficult to track down your will.
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.