Clients frequently ask us what they should do with their wills, powers of attorney, living wills, trusts or other legal and estate planning documents. It is important that these documents be stored in a fire-rated safe or file cabinet because original documents are irreplaceable.
We encourage you to create an individual file that will contain all of your estate planning documents, as well as financial and other legal paperwork, that will aid family members in the event of death or illness. Ideally, you should create a financial summary listing your assets and debts with some particularity and update that summary every year or two. That summary should be placed in the front of the safe or file drawer. Next, add all of your estate planning documents, then any deeds, mortgages, loan documentation, financial account statements, stock certificates, bonds, life insurance contracts, annuity contracts and other types of financial documentation. If this material is not organized and safeguarded, an added burden is placed on those who will act on your behalf.
It is important in most instances to sit down and discuss financial matters and estate planning documents with those persons responsible in the event of death or incapacity. Nothing can replace the empowerment that comes from being fully informed.
We encourage the use of safe deposit boxes to safeguard documents; however, you may wish to consider adding the executor of your will or agent named in your power of attorney as another person authorized to enter your safe deposit box. This decision should not be made lightly, but it may ease the process of accessing the safe deposit box.
If you have lost or misplaced your will, please do not think that a copy exists at the courthouse. Although some people believe that wills are filed at the courthouse after they are prepared, wills are filed at the register of wills office only after death and if an estate must be opened. The original will is the document that must be filed. Therefore, if you cannot locate your original will, you should immediately have a new will prepared.
This is not the same for deeds and mortgages, which are recorded at the recorder of deeds at the time of the transaction. You can obtain copies of these documents if necessary.
If you should misplace insurance policies or annuity contracts, we suggest that you immediately contact the company and have them replaced. You may also need to contact banks or financial institutions if you cannot locate certificates of deposit, passbooks or any other account information.
With respect to financial or medical powers of attorney, we strongly suggest that you do not allow these documents to leave your possession until your trusted agent needs to use them. The original documents should then be secured by your agent, who will permit financial institutions, real estate agents, hospitals or physicians to make copies where necessary. When you are able to resume control of your medical and financial decisions, retrieve these documents from your agent.
These are some suggestions which will help you organize and secure your estate planning documents and financial data. Take the time to create a system that is easy to update, and make sure to familiarize those closest to you with its content.