After you meet with an attorney and have your estate planning documents prepared, you must decide where to store them so that your wishes are executed properly upon your passing.
Original Will vs. Holographic Will
The original will is the legal document that you signed; a holographic will is simply a handwritten will or a copy of the will that isn’t the original. Handwritten wills are only allowed in a few states, so it’s important to have the proper document.
If there’s a chance that family or friends might contest your will, then ensuring that the original will is accessible to the court is very important. While a copy of the will carries weight in court and can reinforce a claim, an original document is more likely to prevail if someone challenges your estate.
Where Should the Documents Be Stored?
Because the original will is such an important document, especially in the case of a contested estate, storing it in a safe place is paramount. There are a number of options for storage, each with its own benefits and drawbacks.
Safe deposit box
This is a safe place to store documents and other valuables. Many safe deposit boxes are held at banks and are only accessible to the renters and/or keyholders, which can make it difficult to gain access if the owner is deceased. At minimum, you’ll need to provide copies of the death certificate and the will. Some banks require a court order to access a safe deposit box, which is more involved. If you aren’t the co-renter of the safe deposit box, then a bank officer will generally have to watch you review and take record of the contents of the box. They likely won’t let you take anything from it other than make copies of any legal documents.
Other considerations include the annual cost of the safe deposit box and any changes in ownership of the bank.
Most estate planning attorneys store your documents after they finish drafting them. This is a good solution and is generally done without your request or additional payment. There is a risk that documents may be lost if attorneys retire without a continuity plan. You’ll want to stay aware of any changes with the law firm.
Keep in mind that lawyers who prepare your estate planning documents have an incentive to stay relevant to you and your family members as they’d like to be hired to administer your will to settle your estate upon passing. Storing your documents keeps them relevant to you and your family.
In the cloud
This solution entails saving your documents with an online storage provider. This option stays intact whether your house burns down or you simply lose track of things. This option may pose a challenge for the surviving spouse or executor if they don’t have shared access or the password to the account where the will is stored. While a digital copy saved online would be considered a holographic will, it’s still useful to have a backup copy.
With cloud-based services, there may be an annual fee and/or potential change of ownership over the years. Furthermore, not accessing your files for a long period may deem your account inactive and cause it to be closed.
If you go this route, it’s best to find a solution that is specifically for storing important documents where you can grant access to any important parties.
With your advisor
Many wealth advisors require a copy of your will because it pertains to important parts of your financial life. Since most advisors won’t store original documents, this would also be a holographic will and a good resource as a backup. While advisors can’t administer or direct your estate, they can educate relevant parties on assets to be distributed in the will.
File cabinet in your home
A fire-safe file cabinet or safe in your home is probably the best place to keep original copies of your estate planning documents. This way, you and any relevant parties have easy access to them. This is generally the same place you keep other important records like previously filed tax returns.
Take some time to think about where you’re going to store the documents and make sure to notify any relevant parties of their location. Make sure to keep your documents updated. In general, you should review your documents every five years and whenever there is a meaningful change in the law, such as changes in the estate tax.
If you don’t yet have a will, make sure to read this article on why you need one!