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Theft is not an issue: Keeping your estate planning documents safe

The question seems trivial but it’s still an important one to ask: Once you’ve created an estate plan with a living trust, advance medical directives and power-of-attorney for health care and finances, where should you store the documents? In your home? At the bank?

Well, your estate planning documents have no street value. This means that you don’t need to worry about theft and that a safe deposit box at a bank might well be overdoing it. In fact, the bank could make your executor’s job unnecessarily hard: If you are the only person authorized to access the box and you die or become incapacitated, your estate plan is out of reach until a court has issued an order for the box to be opened and the documents to be retrieved. Your office or your home, on the other hand, are both good places to store your estate plan. I generally recommend that my clients keep the documents in a small fireproof home safe of the type sold in office supply stores. If you want to keep the box locked, then do. But please make sure someone knows where to find the key or what the combination on the lock is.

Whichever place you choose for your files, you should not only remember where they are but also notify an important person in your life about the location, if possible in writing. If your estate plan can’t be found when it needs to be, it’s like it never existed. Then all your precautionary work will have been in vain, and your assets will have to go through probate. A good person to share the location with would be your successor trustee, your executor or a family member.

Special advice applies for an element of your estate plan that will have to be easily accessible in a medical emergency: the advance health care directive with your instructions for life-sustaining care. You should make sure that your primary physician or hospital, your closest relatives and the person you have designated as your health care agent understand what your wishes regarding the use of ventilators, respirators, CPR, tube feeding etc are. The best way to do this is by giving each one a copy of your signed and completed living will and letting your health care agent know where he or she can find the original.

By Kevin J. Moore