When you finish creating an estate plan, you feel pride and satisfaction at completing a significant accomplishment. You also have the peace of mind that comes with knowing that your family is protected in the future. But there’s an important task remaining: You need to safeguard your estate plan documents and decide where to store them, to protect the documents so your loved ones can access them if necessary.
After you finalize your estate plan, the original signed documents are all in your possession. Your attorney likely retains a copy, but you have the original documents. While copies of some documents are sufficient for legal purposes, the original of your Last Will and Testament has special legal significance. If your loved ones cannot locate it after your death, they may face substantial legal obstacles and court proceedings relating to your estate.
Arizona law requires the personal representative of a deceased person’s estate to present the original of the deceased person’s Last Will and Testament for probate. If the original of a Will is missing, lost, or destroyed, Arizona law establishes a legal presumption that the testator (person making the Will) destroyed the Will with the intention of revoking it.
The presumption of revocation can be rebutted by evidence in court. But if it is not rebutted, the Will is considered to be revoked. The legal effect is that your estate is distributed as if you died without a Will. For details about that situation, please read our previous blog post, What Happens If You Die Without a Will?
The state statute provides that a copy of a Will can be used to prove the existence and validity of a Will in some circumstances. But the best way to avoid court proceedings over your Will after your death is to store the original document in a safe place — and make certain that your loved ones know where it is.
Your estate plan also includes durable powers of attorney that authorize specific individuals to act on your behalf if you become incapacitated temporarily or permanently. While copies of the powers of attorney suffice for most legal purposes, you should store the originals in a protected place to make certain they are available if your loved ones need them.
Finding a safe place for your estate plan documents is only the first step. You also need to make sure that one or more people know where to find your Will and other documents in the event you pass away or become incapacitated even temporarily.
You should tell several people that you trust where your documents are located. Informing the personal representative named in your Will is usually a good idea. If your plan includes a trust, you should also tell your trustee or successor trustee. You may also wish to talk with the designees in your durable powers of attorney, so they know where to find the documents. If necessary, you should also explain to all these individuals how to gain access to the place where the documents are stored, such as where to find the combination to open a home safe.
Many people store their estate plan documents at home. But if you keep them at home, you should make certain they are protected from damage, including fire and water (both flooding and leaks). In most cases, that means storing them in a fireproof and waterproof home safe.
If you use a home safe, make sure to explain how to gain access to the individuals that you inform of the location. If they don’t know how to open the safe, they still won’t have access to the documents when it’s necessary.
Making a digital copy of your estate plan is a good idea. You can store it with your other digital assets. It’s also a good idea to give a digital copy (or hard copy) of your plan to someone you trust, like your personal representative or trustee. Providing your attorney’s name to that individual and to your loved ones is also advisable. If something unforeseen happens to any of your documents, taking those steps ensures that a copy will be available.
Many people think that a safe deposit box is the best place to store estate plan documents. Before you decide to choose that option, be sure you understand Arizona laws that apply to safe deposit boxes. Under state statute provisions, it may be difficult for your loved ones — and even your personal representative — to gain access to the box and its contents after your death. Often, a court order will be necessary.
If you want to consider putting your plan documents in a safe deposit box, you should talk with your estate planning attorney beforehand. Your lawyer can suggest the best options for ensuring that your loved ones and designees can get access to your important legal documents and other items in your safe deposit box when necessary.
At Peterson Law Offices, our practice includes all aspects of estate planning. We provide top-quality services at affordable prices and can assist you in deciding where to store your estate plan documents, as well as in creating a new estate plan or revising an existing plan.
We welcome inquiries from clients throughout the East Valley, including Queen Creek, San Tan Valley, Gilbert, Mesa, and Chandler. Schedule your free initial consultation by calling 480-878-5998 or using our online contact form.
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