You’ve ticked off the items on your checklist.
You’ve done a happy dance.
And now you have a pile of important papers sitting on your desk. Several are original signed documents. Leaving them there doesn’t seem prudent.
What to do with your documents?
These three principles will help you decide what makes sense.
Your documents should be stored where they are safe from fire, theft, or simply being misplaced.
Your documents should be easily accessed by your executor (as named in your Will), by your Attorney* (as named in your Power of Attorney), by your agent (as named in your Personal Directive, Living Will) and your supporters (as named in your Supported Decision-Making Authorization). *The use of “attorney” in this context does not mean your lawyer. It refers to the person(s) you have designated to handle your financial affairs when you can’t.
All relevant people should have copies and know where the originals are stored. If this involves combinations, passwords or keys, they should have that information too.
Things to think about…
Your Will ~ After you’ve died, the executor needs a working copy to begin wrapping up your affairs. The signed original is required when the application for Letters Probate is made. Where should you store it? Here are some things to consider…
- The lawyer who drew up your Will may be able to store it for you.
- A safety deposit box in your bank is another possibility. However, don’t put it there until you check with the bank about conditions under which they can release the will. The law generally requires that a safety deposit box be sealed until probate is granted. Yet the executor needs the original Will to submit with the application to obtain probate, and you don’t want it locked up in a bank where you can’t get it out. Your bank may allow supervised removal of the Will immediately after death. But make sure this is the case before storing it there.
- The executor may be required to prove he or she is the named person by producing a photocopy of the Will along with photo identification, Therefore, it’s crucial to make sure that each of your executors has a copy of your Will.
- You might be able to handle the accessibility issue by registering your executors as co-signers on your safety deposit box. Of course, that could mean they will have access to the box even when you are alive. Best thing is to discuss this idea with your banker, explaining what you are trying to achieve.
- Wherever you store your Will, provide your executor(s) with a copy—and note at the top where the original is stored. If that is a safety deposit box, also note where the key is kept. If the executor does not have a key, there is a substantial charge to drill open the box.
- If you keep your Will in a fireproof, non-portable safe at home, make sure more than one family member has the combination or knows where the key is.
Your Power of Attorney ~ Your Power of Attorney document is needed when you are unable to look after your financial affairs. Instead of making photocopies of a single signed original, your lawyer may recommend that you sign an original for each of your attorneys for their convenience in having a signed original with them whenever they go to an institution to act on your behalf. In addition, you need a signed original that you will store in a safe, accessible place.
- Anyone named as your representative in a document should have either a copy or an original of it.
- If it’s a photocopy, note on the top where the original is stored and provided access information in a way that keeps it secure—i.e. don’t put the combination to your home safe on the top of the photocopy!
- In some cases, a signed original is convenient for your representative to have. This applies to the Power of Attorney, Personal Directive, and Supported Decision-Making Authorization. Ask your lawyer if this is possible for the Power of Attorney. For the other two, make the number of copies you’ll need and have both you and your witness sign all of them.
Unsigned, self-generated documents
Some of the documents I recommend are not required by law but are helpful to your survivors. They include your Paper Trail, Last Wishes Letter, encrypted file of passwords and other sensitive information, and health history.
The principle here s to distribute them so they are not just stored in one place. This ensures both safety and accessibility.
Access is particularly important because some of the information will be needed immediately after death—your last wishes about disposition of your body, for example, and what sort of funeral arrangements you want or don’t want. Even if you have given your family verbal instructions, it’s best to have it in writing because people remember conversations differently at the best of times, and even more so when under stress.
Review and update …
Major life changes should trigger an update.
- Divorce To many people’s surprise, divorce doesn’t automatically cancel your Will. As you might imagine, this can lead to unintended consequences.
- Marriage On the other hand, marriage automatically revokes your Will in some jurisdictions. When you think about it, this makes sense because, once married, a person has different obligations. A new Will should be made as soon as possible after marriage. If it isn’t, the person will die without a Will and the estate will be handled under intestacy legislation, which often results in things not happening the way you would have wanted.
- Your children have married, you have grandchildren This may change your list of beneficiaries and how you want your assets to be distributed.
Schedule a yearly review.
I learned this good habit from my friend Diane, who has mastered the art of staying on top of things and keeping them in order. I’ve taken a page from her book, and am now reviewing my documents at the beginning of each new year.
Sometimes I’ve had very few revisions. But last year I had cataract surgery, switched to a new optometrist, and decided to donate my body to medical education.
The relevant changes have been incorporated into my documents, I’ve put revised copies in my file, and have given a set to each of my kids to replace the previous version. It feels like a big accomplishment!
So… when yours are all distributed, pat yourself on the back and give yourself 17 points for…