If your will and other important estate planning documents cannot be located when they are needed, it can cause confusion and conflict. Deciding where to store your documents requires you to balance between security and accessibility. Your options as to where the best place to keep them is will likely depend on your particular situation. Regardless of where you choose to store them, it is critical that your personal representative knows where the documents are and is able to access them so they can move forward with handling your estate on your passing. But where? There are pros and cons to each option.
You want your important documents in a place safe from theft, loss, and fire, but you also want them accessible when needed both during your life and at death. You will want to periodically review your documents to be sure that they still represent your wishes and determine whether changes are necessary. If you choose to amend your documents, you will want to have relatively easy access to the originals to be able to make adjustments without undue inconvenience. Thus, you don’t want to put these documents so far out of reach that you cannot readily get hold of them. Finally, you want your personal representative to have access to them when required.
Many people put their wills and important financial and end of life documents in a safe deposit box. A safe deposit box can be a good choice because it is both safe and likely the first place people will look if they can’t find your estate planning documents (assuming they know where it is). However, others accessing the box after you become incapacitated or at death may be challenging. If the box is not held jointly with another party who survives you, it is important that your personal representative knows where the box is and has access to the key. Banks may allow access to the box with the presentation of the death certificate along with the key. If you don’t have a key, you may be charged a “drilling fee” and may experience delays accessing the box.
Banks in Colorado are required to give access to anyone who is reasonably believed to be an appropriate person according to the statutory language. If the bank opens the box in these circumstances and finds a will, the law requires the bank to submit it directly to the court. You may consider talking with your bank now about how your personal representative may be able to access it.
If you have a Revocable Living Trust, consider putting the safe deposit box in the name of the Trust. This way, the successor trustee of your trust can gain access to the box when necessary.
Some people want to leave the original documents with their lawyers. This is not a common practice anymore as many attorneys are no longer willing to accept the responsibility for maintaining original documents for what could potentially be an extended period of time. You also run the risk that a firm could dissolve, an attorney could retire or move, or firms can merge, making locating the correct firm or attorney very difficult for your personal representative.
Some people keep their important original documents in a home safe. If this is your choice, the best option to guard against loss is to keep it in a large, heavy, fireproof/waterproof safe that is securely attached to the structure of your home. Your personal representative would also need to have some way to access the safe when needed (key or combination).
You can give your will to your personal representative for safekeeping. However, your personal representative is going to face many of the same issues that you face in keeping the documents secure. If your personal representative passes or become incapacitated, that may further complicate your access.
Wherever and however you store your will, tell someone where it is. If your documents cannot be located, it will cause confusion for those that are working to handle your estate and it may be legally presumed that you destroyed the will, which could cause the estate to be handled as if you died without a will.