When it comes to estate planning, signing day typically marks a significant achievement on the journey of determining and implementing an inheritance strategy. Unfortunately, proper care and consideration is not always given to the accessibility of estate planning documents after they have been signed. Specifically, it is vital to determine where originals should or should not be stored, and who should have access to the documents.
Store Originals Documents in a Fireproof Safe
Various trends in storage methods for legal documents have come and gone, with the most common likely being storage in a safe deposit box at a local bank branch. Unfortunately, many of these trends ultimately proved to have significant pitfalls. For example, in the case of safe deposit boxes, only certain individuals have authority to access the safe deposit box. In North Carolina and South Carolina there is a separate court procedure to gain access to the contents of a safety deposit box if the owner died (1) with their original will stored in the box, and (2) without the executor named on the bank records as an individual authorized to access the box. In these scenarios, this separate procedure is required before the initial filings for opening an estate can be completed. This can cause significant delays in the estate administration process. In addition, the COVID era highlighted the problems with accessibility to a safe deposit box when the bank branches are closed or have limited operating hours.
Alternatively, storing originals in a fireproof safe in a home or office allows: (1) easier access in the event of future amendments; (2) higher probability of heirs and named fiduciaries (such as the executor) locating the documents after the testator's death; (3) physical protection from fire, water damage, and theft.
Where NOT to Store Original Documents
We DO NOT recommend storing your originals in any of the following locations:
- Safe Deposit Box
- Freezer or Ice Box
- Storage Box / Drawer
- Under a Mattress
- Storage Unit
For more information on how storing documents in these and other places can impact the estate administration process, see our article “Discovering and Investigating Assets of a Decedent”.
Consider Giving Certain Copies to Fiduciaries and Advisors
One of the key considerations in estate planning is who has the power to effectuate the signor's wishes as described in the document (i.e., the executor under the will or the agent under the general financial power of attorney or healthcare power of attorney). Ideally, the individuals named to serve in these roles should be aware of the responsibilities and powers given to them in the documents, so consider providing the named fiduciaries with copies (either electronic or physical) of the documents in which they are named.
For example, the agent under the healthcare power of attorney may benefit from having a copy of the document in case the signor experiences a medical emergency and is unable to provide the original to their attending physicians. It may also be beneficial to provide copies of signed estate planning documents to financial advisors and CPAs for multiple reasons, including coordinating on relevant asset updates to mirror the strategy of the inheritance structure in the will or trust, or so that the advisor is aware of who they can contact in the event the signor is incapacitated or unavailable.
Our team is dedicated to providing a wholistic approach to estate planning and would welcome the opportunity to discuss our process for properly preparing and implementing strategies. Please contact our office to get started.