Safeguarding Your Estate Plan Documents

You finally got around to establishing your estate plan, consisting of a revocable living trust, pour-over will, power of attorney, an advance health care directive, and other important documents.  You are proud of yourself that you finally took the very important step of executing a plan that will help your trusted loved ones manage your assets in the event of incapacity or death.  However, you suddenly realize that the estate plan will only be useful if your trusted loved ones have access to your estate plan documents upon your incapacity or death, otherwise, it would be as if you never executed your estate plan in the first place.  You wonder where to keep your documents to ensure that they will be available in case of an emergency.

Historically, the drafting attorney customarily would offer to keep the clients’ original estate planning documents.   In addition to being a service to the client, many attorneys figured that the client or the client’s loved ones would almost be “compelled” to go back to the same attorney for future business.  Although there is nothing that requires the client or the client’s family to use the same drafting attorney for future business, the fact that the attorney held all the originals strongly encouraged the client’s or the client’s family to use the same attorney. 

However, today most attorneys realize that holding all of their clients’ original documents creates a significant liability.  Most law firms do not have fireproof storage and one office disaster, such as a fire or a flood, could destroy thousands of original estate planning documents.  Furthermore, most attorneys realize that holding clients’ documents is a futile way to encourage future business.  Good client service, availability, and periodic contact with information that might be useful to the clients is a much better way to encourage future business than to “hold hostage” original estate planning documents.  If your law firm will not hold your original estate planning documents, where should you safeguard them?

One idea is to keep your original estate planning documents in a safe in your home.  Many safes are fire-resistant, though nothing is foolproof.  I distinctly remember my grandfather’s “fireproof” safe was destroyed in the Oakland Hills fire of 1992 – it melted in the heat.  In addition, the tsunami in Japan a few years ago washed many household safes hundreds of miles away from their original locations.

Another idea is to keep your original estate planning documents in a safe deposit box at your bank.  Often estate planning documents are too thick to fit into a standard safe deposit box.  As a compromise, you might simply keep your original signature pages in your safe deposit box and keep photocopies or electronic copies of the rest of your estate planning documents in other locations.

Liza Horvath, a trust management professional in Monterey, decided to solve this storage problem herself – she installed a vault at her office!  The vault, ordered online (yes, you really can order anything online), resembles what you might see in a bank.  Through her program, EstateDoc Vault, anybody may keep original estate planning documents in her vault for an annual fee.  “I always felt that the storage of original estate planning was a dilemma for most clients,” said Liza. “When I opened my own trust management business last year, I knew that offering a safe place and reliable storage place for original estate planning documents that are too large for a standard safe deposit box would be a valuable service.” 

With the proliferation of cloud storage today, another simple solution is to keep electronic copies of estate plans in an online backup storage plan such as Dropbox, Carbonite, Barracuda, or LegalVault.  Furthermore, cloud storage is so inexpensive today that it often makes sense to backup important legal documents in multiple cloud storage programs as a “belt and suspenders” approach.  Although you cannot store the original “wet signatures” of your estate planning documents in an electronic storage program, the original “wet signatures” are not really necessary as long as you have an electronic copy or a photocopy of your signatures. 

In addition, you might put electronic copies of your estate plan on a disk that can be stored in a safe deposit box and you might give physical or electronic copies of your estate plan to your loved ones.

Regardless of which storage solution you prefer, you want to take steps to ensure that your loved ones have easy access to copies of your signed estate planning documents in case of emergency.