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Tips for Storing Legal Documents in a Safe, Accessible Location

Troy Werner and his family

Written by Troy Werner

Troy Werner has been an indispensable asset to The Werner Law Firm since joining in 2009, providing exceptional legal service to its clients.

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POSTED ON: April 13, 2020

You have gone through the steps, talked things through with an estate planning professional, and have signed off on the final draft of your living trust. You have registered it at your local notary, amended the paperwork on all relevant possessions to reflect your new trust, and are working closely with your trustee to make […]

You have gone through the steps, talked things through with an estate planning professional, and have signed off on the final draft of your living trust. You have registered it at your local notary, amended the paperwork on all relevant possessions to reflect your new trust, and are working closely with your trustee to make sure they are equipped to manage your living trust once you have passed on.

Congratulations. That was a lot of work, and it is well worth it. But how do you ensure its protection and safety? You have assuredly made a few copies at this point, but you need to store the original someplace where it cannot be stolen or destroyed, and you will want to keep plenty of other estate planning documents safe, including optional but useful tools like a durable power of attorney, a last will and testament, and a living will.

Some people resort to a fireproof safe at home. Some people keep their legal documents in a small box or suitcase hidden under their socks. Some go through far more elaborate means to hide their legal documents, which they may come to regret later. There are other options – but which is the best?

At Your Home

The first option most consider is a safe. Safes are effective, simple, and reliable – but some can be quite pricey, and you will want a safe that can’t be stolen. Secondly, you need to remember the combination, and make sure your most trusted loved ones know it too. It is not enough to know the combination and keep it to yourself – if you die without ever revealing the combination to your safe, all this work will have been for nothing.

You might have considered scanning your living trust and keeping it “safe” on a locked hard drive or on your computer, but digital living trusts are not valid. There are ways to leverage modern day technology to keep your estate planning documents safe, and we will get to these ways later.

If you don’t have a safe or don’t want one, you can hide your estate planning documents, but this is not recommended for obvious reasons. Your family should know where you keep your trust, and they should have access to it should anything happen to you. Worse yet, you might forget where you placed your trust if you hide it too well, and do not think about it for several years until you try to amend it.

At Your Bank

If you don’t want to keep the original living trust in your own home, then there are plenty of other options. The first that comes to mind is a safety deposit box. These can be found at banks and post offices. While this is certainly a very safe option, your family might not have the right to immediately access your living trust document if you decide to keep it safe under your sole name.

If you open a safety deposit box with your partner, then they will have the ability to open it after you are gone. Alternatively, your family will have to seek a court order to open the box, which can take quite some time, and possibly derail your estate plan. One way to work around this is to place the box itself in a trust. This way, your designated trustee has immediate access to the box once you pass away.

With Your Estate Planning Attorney

The next best thing besides a bank vault is your attorney’s office. Your attorney should already have a copy of your living trust, as well as any other valid legal documents that you drafted and signed with their help. However, attorney’s often help their clients store the originals, too.

With a Trustee

Another option is to keep the document safe with your trustee. Encourage them not to hide it too well, either. Trustees do not always outlive a trust’s grantor, and you do not want to be in an awkward situation where your original trust document is hidden, and you have no way of accessing it or knowing where to look.

Electronically-Stored Legal Documents

This is not an option for your original document, because an online copy will not replace the real thing. There is some precedence for having digital estate planning, verified through a variety of different means including an authenticated digital signature, video proof of a will’s creation and signing, and webcam notarization.

This is very much new territory for estate law, however, and not in any way reliable. While new emerging technologies will surely play a greater role in how we develop and store estate plans in the future, for now, these technologies largely exist to safely encrypt and store digital copies of one’s legal documents in the cloud, where they cannot be destroyed as they might be on a dying hard drive or lost computer.

Do not rely on digital means to safely store your living will documents, and always have your original copy stored somewhere safe and physical. Regardless of whether you decide to leave your trust with your trustee, your attorney, at your bank, at your post office, or in the safety of your own home, it’s important that your most immediate and trusted friends and family members know where they should look to retrieve your estate planning documents.

What Happens When Legal Documents Are Lost?

If your living trust document is lost and you have passed away, that does not necessarily mean that all hope is lost. A copy (which your attorney is sure to have) does not have the same weight as the original but may still be valid.

However, the process for getting the copy accepted as evidence may be costly and lengthy. The specifics depend on case to case. If neither copies nor the original is found, and there is no will, your belongings will be distributed as per your state’s intestate laws. Either way, it is strongly advised that you ensure that the original is not lost.

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