“Now what do I do with these?” says almost every estate planning client upon final execution or signing of their documents. Where do you store them for safekeeping and who do you tell of their existence? The short answer is that you store them in a very safe and secure location. And you tell those people who need to know where that is and how they can gain access. Well, what does that mean and how do I do it?
Let's start by assuming you have a standard set of estate planning documents that include a Will, perhaps a Revocable Living Trust, a Durable Power of Attorney, an Advance Health Care Directive, and perhaps a HIPAA authorization.
Where Do I Store My Estate Plan?
First, you should be sure to discard all previous working copies so as to not confuse any earlier versions with the final copies. It is best to shred these old copies or otherwise thoroughly destroy them.
Second, you must store the originals in a safe and secure place. You may, of course, make copies of the originals but the originals must be securely stored and your agents and executor must know the location. I typically suggest stapling the pages together after you have made copies so that no pages get lost. If you choose to keep them in a safe deposit box, someone other than you must have the authority to gain entry to that safe deposit box. If you store them in a safe or secure location in your home (it should be fireproof) someone other than you must know that they are there and be able to access them.
You might hear suggestions that you store the originals with the attorney that drafted them for you. I do not offer that service nor do I recommend it. I can not tell you how many times I have seen a desperate probate attorney generating a broad email request to other attorneys asking if anyone knows who took over the files for the drafting attorney who has since retired and or died. It happens all of the time. And what if the decedent has moved since drafting and executing their estate plan? Did they remember to go to their old attorney and pick up the originals? Does not seem like a good plan to me.
You can also inquire at the Register of Wills (ROW) in your jurisdiction's courthouse as to their procedure for storing or registering your Will. Their process changes from time to time so it is a good idea to visit the courthouse and inquire. This is only valid for your Will since the other estate planning documents are not governed by the court's probate system. One advantage of registering and storing the original Will with the Register of Wills is that doing so creates the presumption that the Will thus stored is presumed to be the latest and most valid Will. Should someone contest that it is the most recent Will, the burden would shift to them to prove that the original stored with the ROW is not the most recent nor valid Will.
Should I Make Electronic Copies of My Estate Plan?
The simple answer is YES. In addition to having physical hard copies, I always advise my clients to make electronic copies (PDF format) of the scanned fully executed copies of their estate plan. In fact, we do the scanning for them and provide them with these electronic copies. Make sure the scans are in color so you can see the blue ink signatures (you did sign your documents in blue ink, right?). Store these electronic versions on a system(s) that is backed up to multiple locations.
I also strongly recommend that you purchase a small thumb drive storage device and copy those documents onto it and keep it on your keyring so you have them whenever you travel.
What About Digital Assets?
In today's world, there is a vast amount of information and resources concerning our lives that are stored electronically in “the cloud”. How do we close our loved ones' online bank account or delete their Facebook account? How do we terminate online subscriptions so that the estate is not billed after the person has passed? I have written extensively about our digital footprint in the past. In one post we advocate creating a document with all of your account login credentials written down to provide to your agent or executor. To be honest, I'd rather you use a password manager program such as 1Password, LastPass, or even Apple's built-in Keychain. That way you can give your agent access to the master password to gain access to that database after you are gone. A great idea is to include that information on the keychain thumb drive noted above