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What to Do with your Estate Planning Documents

estate planning documents

If you have all of your estate planning documents in order, great job! You’re ahead of many other people who haven’t gotten around to it yet, and your family will have the support and information they need if something happens to you. If you still need to set up some documentation in California, take a look at this checklist to help get you started.

Once your estate planning documents are ready, there’s another crucial step to follow. You need to find a safe place to store them and let your family know how to access them. If you lock the only copy of an important document in a box and hide it under some junk in the attic, your family might not be able to follow through with your instructions when the time comes. The result could be a mess of stressful arguments and litigation.

If no one can find a copy of your last will and testament, the law usually presumes that you destroyed or revoked it. If an older copy is found, it might be used instead. If no version is found, California Intestate Law will determine who is entitled to your property for you. These results might vary considerably from what you had planned.

In 2016, BMO Wealth Management polled 1,008 Americans about the state of their estate planning documents. Only one third of them responded that their heirs knew where the documents were kept, and only a tenth of them had given their heirs a copy! Let’s improve these statistics by making smarter decisions with our important legal paperwork.

Image courtesy of BMO Wealth Management.

Secure the Originals

It’s crucial to keep the original copies of your estate planning documents safe. The court may not accept digital or paper copies of the originals, especially in the event of a dispute. Many states also won’t accept copies of healthcare proxy and power of attorney documentation.

Store an original document in its own marked, sealed envelope. This will keep pages from being misplaced or mixed in with other paperwork. A great place to keep these envelopes is in a fireproof, locked safe within your own home. You can let your attorney or bank store them for you, but these aren’t the best options for emergency paperwork that your family might need at a moment’s notice, such as medical proxy documents. State laws and bank policies affect who can access your bank box, even after your death, so make sure that the important documents can reach the family members who need them without requiring court orders.

Provide Copies

Several people should have access to copies of your estate planning documents. Your financial and legal advisors should each have a copy, including your accountant and attorney. These people play a neutral role in your decisions, and can give you and your family good advice, such as when your documents need to be updated. You should also give copies to trusted members of your family, particularly the ones who are listed within the documentation. If you don’t trust them with copies, you need to at least inform them about the location of the originals.

Disclose the Location

In addition to your spouse, you must disclose the location of the original estate planning documents to certain other people. Again, your accountant, attorney, and trusted family members should all be aware of the originals’ locations. This will ensure that the information is available and the documentation can be put into the right hands in the case of an accident that affects both you and your spouse. Also make sure that your close family knows the safe combination, key location, and/or contact information for your attorney so that they can access the documents in a pinch.

Update When Necessary

 Depending on how your circumstances change over time, an outdated set of estate planning documents can be almost as bad as no documentation at all. Make sure that you update your will, power of attorney, and other important documents when a major life change occurs. After changes are made, destroy the old documents so that no confusion occurs over your current wishes. You also need to track down and make sure that every copy is destroyed and replaced by the updated version. If you change who you use as a financial or legal advisor, make sure that your new professionals have current documents and your family knows who to contact.

Does your family know what to do in case you have an emergency? Are the originals of your estate planning documents safe and secure? Does each person who needs a copy have an up-to-date version and know how to access the originals when necessary? If you said no to any of these questions, it might be time to reconsider how you are handling your important documents.

At the Law Firm of Hathaway, Perrett, Webster, Powers, Chrisman & Gutierrez, we have handled thousands of estate plans, and we know how to keep your documents safe! We catalog and store your original documents in a fireproof location. We provide an organized copy of your estate planning documents, together with information on what to do when the time comes to use these documents. If you would like more information on how an estate plan can help your loved ones when you are gone, or have estate plan questions in general, call Dan Higson today at 805-644-7111!

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