Where should I keep my estate planning documents?

If you find yourself spending more time at home this winter because of the pandemic, I encourage you to take a few hours and organize your important legal and financial documents. The time you spend on this project will pay dividends in the future for the person who will take over your affairs if you are incapacitated or pass away. If someone is taking over management of your legal and financial affairs or settling your estate, they will need to know what you own and what your legal planning says.

While I have never heard a family member say, “I wish Mom wasn’t so organized!” I have heard the opposite many times: “I have no idea how to figure out what Dad owned-he never talked about any of this,” or “You have no idea how long it took me to find Mom’s abstracts!”

Here are four simple things you can do between now and Christmas to organize these important documents. Grab a few folders or a three-ring notebook and follow these steps:

–Put your legal documents in a safe, secure place. Your original Will or Trust is best kept in a safe or safe deposit box. Your family must have your original Will after your passing in order to carry out your wishes, and only a few exceptions exist to get around not being able to find the original Will. Vehicle titles, stock certificates, original powers of attorney, original deeds, abstracts and other documents that are difficult, expensive, or impossible to replace are also best kept in a safe or safe deposit box.

Keep any copies of these documents in a separate notebook in a more accessible place, such as your home office or bedroom. In this notebook, write down the location of the original documents and your safe combination or key location. This way your family can easily find the bulk of your important papers quickly and be pointed to where the original documents are kept. If you prefer to store digital copies of documents online, look into companies like DocuBank or using Google Drive.

— Make a detailed list of your assets. For bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts, mortgages, credit cards, pension plans, etc., this can be as simple as finding a recent statement for each account and stuffing them all into a folder. Or it can be as elaborate as a detailed spreadsheet. Also be sure to compile life insurance and long-term care policy documents and premium statements. Add these to the same notebook where you have copies of your legal documents. Put in a copy of your recent personal income tax return as well. If you have business interests, add your bylaws. Keep a list of usernames and passwords if you have online accounts.

— Talk with key people about their future responsibilities. Make sure the people you have named as your personal representative, trustee, or power of attorney know you have chosen them to serve in that capacity. Share with them as much information as you are comfortable regarding your legal planning and financial situation. At a minimum, let them know what responsibilities they will have in the future and the location of your original documents and other legal and financial records (such as the notebook you compile with recent statements).

–Keep your records current. If you update your estate planning documents, be sure to shred the old ones. If you switch banks or obtain a new investment, remember to add a current statement to your notebook and remove obsolete ones.

Taking over for a loved one because of their incapacity or death can be stressful and overwhelming. Following these simple steps will save your designated representatives the confusion and expense of locating and possibly replacing your important documents, and will ensure they have all the information necessary to manage your affairs as you have directed.

This article does not constitute legal advice. Each individual should consult his or her own attorney.


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