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Emergencies don't happen on banker's hours: So where should you keep your estate planning documents?

As an estate planning lawyer, I'm often asked by clients where they should keep their original estate planning documents. Do they need to keep them in a bank safe-deposit box? Generally speaking, my advice is to keep them somewhere safe and accessible but a safe-deposit box may not be the best answer and in many instances, is actually not recommended.

First of all, if your documents are in a safe-deposit box, they may not be accessible at all unless you have another person authorized to access the box. What happens if you are incapacitated or die and someone needs to get access to your documents-such as your power of attorney or your Will-in order to assist you or your estate? Getting access may require filing a petition with the local probate court and waiting until an order is entered allowing access. Also, a safe-deposit box is only accessible during business hours. Although this is an overstatement, it has been said that "emergencies don't happen on banker's hours!" If you put your original documents in a safe-deposit box, at least make sure that accurate copies are readily available in case of an emergency. In most instances, a copy will suffice in a pinch. 

In most circumstances, placing your estate documents in a file cabinet, desk, home safe, or other safe place will suffice. The likelihood of a thief sneaking into your house to steal your Will is pretty remote-they'll go after your TV or computer first! If you put your documents in a locked cabinet, desk or safe, make sure someone you trust knows how to gain access.

Finally, when it comes to your estate documents, you may want to make sure that at least one person knows where the documents are located and knows how to access them. Usually, this would be the primary named person who can act for you on matters such as medical decision-making or acting as agent under a power of attorney. One smart way to make sure that your key person(s) has these documents in case of emergency is to have them saved on the person's phone. If an emergency arises, the person doesn't need to scramble to find the documents, they're likely to have their phone and from that can provide copies as needed. Another option is for copies of the documents to be stored on a flash drive which can be easily pulled up on a computer and printed out.

In order to even be concerned about where to store your estate documents, you must have those documents in place. If you don't, the first advice is get them--then you can worry about where to store them!

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Attorney Michael Lins
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