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Where Should I Store My Estate Planning Documents?

Multiple rows of filing cabinets in an office or medical establishment, overflowing with files. Narrow depth of field to emphasize the "neverending" feeling


You have undoubtedly heard from friends and family members all about the importance of creating an estate plan – putting a Will or Trust in place. You listened and you are finally going to make your estate plan a reality. One thing no one explained though, was what to do with your estate planning documents once they are complete. Like most people, you probably keep other valuables in your safety deposit box, making that an obvious choice. The Arizona and New Mexico estate planning attorneys at Morris Hall explain why your safety deposit box is not the best place for your estate planning documents.

What Documents Are Included in Your Plan?

The estate plan you create should be as unique and individual as you are. Nevertheless, there are some common components, strategies, and documents that are frequently found in an estate plan, including:

  • Last Will and Testament
  • Trust agreement
  • Power of attorney
  • Life insurance policy
  • Advance directive

In many cases, an original copy (meaning one with an original signature in ink) of the document in question is required in order for the document to work as intended. For this reason, your estate planning documents should be kept together in a safe place. Understandably, the first place many people think to store their estate planning documents is in their existing safety deposit box. After all, that’s probably where you keep valuable jewelry, deeds to property, stocks and bonds, and other valuables. At first glance, it makes perfect sense to put your estate planning documents in your safety deposit box as well. On closer inspection, however, your safety deposit box is not the best place for your estate planning documents.

Your Safety Deposit Box

To understand why putting your estate planning documents in your safety deposit box may not be the best choice, you need to understand some probate basics. Shortly after your death, your estate needs to go through the legal process known as “probate.” Probate serves numerous purposes, including:

  • Identifying and securing your assets
  • Authenticating your Will
  • Paying debts of the estate
  • Litigating any claims against the estate
  • Paying estate taxes
  • Distributing assets to beneficiaries and/or heirs

If you executed a Will prior to your death, you appointed someone to be the Executor, known as the Personal Representative in Arizona and New Mexico, of your estate. Your Executor is responsible for overseeing the probate process. To perform that job as intended, your appointed Executor must initiate the probate process with the appropriate court and petition the court to be officially appointed as your Executor. If the court approves the appointment, the court will issue Letters Testamentary which provide proof that the Executor has been appointed by the court and therefore has the authority to act on behalf of the estate.

The problem is that in order to initiate the probate process and secure the appointment as your Executor, an original copy of your Will must be submitted to the court. If your Will is in your safety deposit box, however, the bank won’t allow access to the box without proof that the individual seeking access is the Executor of your estate. This becomes a “chicken and egg” problem. Your chosen Executor cannot secure the necessary Letters Testamentary to act as your Executor without your Will – but he/she cannot access your Will without the Letters Testamentary.

Similar problems can crop up with other estate planning documents as well. For example, an Agent under your Power of Attorney may have the legal authority necessary to access your safety deposit box; however, if the POA document granting your Agent that authority is in the safety box, your Agent has no way to prove that he/she is your Agent.

Where Should I Put My Estate Planning Documents?

Now that you understand why your safety deposit box may not be the best place to keep your estate planning documents, the question becomes “where should I keep them?” First, it is always a good idea to let your Agent(s) and Executor know where you keep your important papers. Your estate planning attorney should keep a digital copy as a back-up. Second, your original set of documents should be kept at home in a fireproof safe (with the combination or key accessible by your trusted fiduciary) or given to a trusted family member.  Finally, where possible, copies of the documents, such as the Advanced Medical Directives and Power of Attorney, can be submitted and put on file with your doctor, hospital, and financial institutions (though, it becomes even more imperative to inform those with copies if there are changes to your documents).

Contact a Arizona or New Mexico Estate Planning Attorney

For more information, please join us for an upcoming FREE webinar. If you have additional questions or concerns about what to do with your estate planning documents once they are prepared, contact an experienced Arizona or New Mexico estate planning attorney at Morris Hall PLLC by calling 888-222-1328 to schedule your appointment today.

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