Living in southeast Texas has a lot of advantages over other places in the country. The food is great. Very little in the way of cold weather. Lots of jobs. Lots of places to live. The cost of living is low compared to other metropolitan areas. I could go on. There is a reason why Houston is consistently one of the fastest-growing areas in the country year after year. We see new neighborhoods, roads, stores, schools, and apartment complexes spring up with quickness each year. Just when we think that it wouldn’t be possible for the city to keep growing, it does. With good reason, I may add.
However, one of the aspects of the area that we are all painfully aware of, as far as reasons why living here may not be the greatest thing, is that natural disasters are not a once-a-century type deal. Rather, we, unfortunately, see bad situations regarding the weather with some regularity. Usually, these disasters are related to hurricanes, rain, and water generally speaking. That just sort of comes with the territory. Each of us has likely experienced some sort of run-in with the wet weather that we experience here in southeast Texas. If you live here long enough, you can surely start to be able to trade stories with people in your life surrounding these events. It’s sort of a coming-of-age experience for newbie Southeast Texans. Have you lived through a hurricane? How close has your house come to being flooded? How long was your power out during the ice storm?
I may be making light of the situation with natural disasters just a tad, but having your life upended by a natural disaster is not something that anyone likes to think about. However, it happens to people in southeast Texas often enough that you need to think about contingency plans as far as what to do in the event of an emergency. This not only involves planning out what to do with your children and your family but also what to do with important property in the home. This would include important papers and other legal items that you should maintain in your possession. You should have a plan ready to go if something happens, and your home environment is no longer stable. What can you do to make sure that your items are kept safe, and that you can keep your life on some kind of normal path?
This is a hard subject to discuss but it is one that you need to think critically about. It is not good enough for you to just do some planning or to even leave it up for another day. Rather, this is something that you need to think about critically and with a plan in mind. Be intentional and figure out what you will do with those important documents you have in your home. Even if you have the documents on a home computer, tablet, or other electronic devices it would be wise for you to have a plan on how to keep those documents safe from harm during an extreme weather event. That is what we are going to be discussing in today’s blog post from the Law Office of Bryan Fagan. How to store your estate planning documents in a way that is safe for you and your family.
Have a plan- just like you did with your estate planning documents
Do you remember when you first started to devise a plan for planning for the end-of-life circumstances and your estate in general? Something must have driven you to take the step to prepare these documents. You may have had a loved one die and realize that you still hadn't gotten around to getting your own will drafted. Or, you may have had a life-changing event happen in your household that led you to build the motivation necessary to get your will ready to go. In any event, it probably wasn't just another day passing that caused you to get your will ready. At some point, your "why" became big enough to cause you to take the next step and get that will be prepared after having delayed doing so for so long.
You can think of your will or trust like your emergency preparedness kit. If you had to leave your home at a moment’s notice, would you be able to do so? Probably not. Maybe if you lived alone and already had an overnight bag ready you would be able to. Otherwise, it would probably be tough sledding to collect toiletries, clothes, food, prescriptions, etc. in enough time to get out the door and evacuate to a safe place. When the waters start to rise in your home, and you are running out of time to collect enough things to keep you in one piece for the next few days it would be great if you had the forethought to collect your belongings to get them ready to leave the house quicker. You can Google a “bug out” bag to learn what you could keep in this emergency bag/kit if you were interested.
During this time it would also be important to keep a close eye on your documents. These are things that you would not necessarily want to leave behind in the event of an emergency. For example, insurance policies, your driver's license, Social Security cards, and things of this nature are what I mean as far as important papers, documents, and cards. When it comes to computers and laptops a handy list of passwords would be nice to have in case you need to log in to your email from another computer.
As far as your estate planning documents are specifically concerned you should have a place where you can leave them where they are both safe and accessible. Both factors need to be considered. Punting one quality in favor of the other is not a wise decision to make. Rather, you need to be able to thread the needle between safety and accessibility. Making the documents so hard to locate that you can't get to them quickly if you need to does not make a ton of sense.
A common place for many people to keep their documents is a safe that can survive both a fire and a flood. Many people will store other items in the safe if it is large enough. Or they do make safes that are only for documents and are small. Either way, you can place the safe in an out-of-the-way location in your home and even have it bolted down to the ground. Based on your budget you can determine what works best for you and where to purchase the safe. Do your research first so that you can get the best safe for the money that you have budgeted for this expense. However, if you go through the time and money needed to get your estate plan in order then you also need to put forth the effort to protect the documents that you have created.
Another place that you may consider keeping your information estate planning documents is a local bank or credit union. This could be someplace where you do your banking or a place where you only have a safe deposit box and nothing more. A safe deposit box is made of metal and is usually in a hallway of these boxes at the bank or credit union. An employee of the credit union or bank. This is a safe option for you to choose to keep your documents located in. However, you should choose a bank or credit union that is located close to where you like.
You can talk to the bank or credit union to determine who can access the safe deposit box beside you. Sometimes a key can be given as a spare to someone that you trust. Keep in mind that once you die your assets may become frozen so that nobody other than a co-key holder can access the box. In some situations, your estate or will may have to be probated to avoid a situation where nobody can access your safe deposit box after you have passed away. This would be a real shame given that all you would need to do in most cases is put another person’s name on the safe deposit box.
With it being 2023, it should not surprise any of us to learn that online document hubs like Dropbox allow you to keep your documents someplace easily and safely. Flash drives or thumb drives as they were sometimes known can also be a great place to store important documents. You can put the zip drive into your overnight bag or in the pocket of your shirt before leaving the house in an emergency.
Do you have an attorney who you have hired to handle these sorts of estate planning and will draft purposes? If so, then this attorney may be willing to hold on to the original document that you signed once you have completed the job. This way you can prevent misplacing the document that you signed or even having a person that you would prefer not to have the document get their hands on it. In some cases, you may hire an attorney who ends up being a family lawyer for you. This lawyer could draft your estate planning documents but can also handle family law matters for you. The attorneys with the Law Office of Bryan Fagan, for example, can handle matters like this in addition to family law cases like divorce and child custody situations.
The bottom line no matter what option you choose is that you need to designate certain individuals who are in your family or close-knit social circle who can keep track of this information with you. A sibling, cousin, brother-in-law, etc. needs to be kept in the loop about your financial documents, estate planning documents, and things of this nature. If you were to update a will then you need to contact any person who has a copy of your former will and make sure that person destroys any copy that is in their possession. This will help ensure that there are no misunderstandings when it comes to handling your affairs once you pass away. Remember that you do not get a second bite at the apple with this sort of thing, so you need to make sure that everything is set to go when you have an opportunity. There is no telling if something were to happen to you that would put you in a position where you were not able to keep someone in the loop before you become incapacitated, for example.
Communication is a huge part of this process. If you have a will then you need to communicate to the executor of the will before your intent to name him or her to that position. This is a huge responsibility for someone, and you need to be sure that he or she is willing to accept that role. The last thing you want to do is name someone as the executor of your will and have him or her not be willing to serve in that capacity. In this case, the will would certainly need to be probated so that another executor can be named. All the while multiple negative things occur. For one, all your beneficiaries would need to wait to receive the property that was promised to them in the will. Some of those people could certainly use the property now rather than having to wait until a new executor is named. A second negative aspect of a situation like this is when your estate is incurring bills like taxes and other fees which need to be paid out of the body of your estate. This means that a 5-million-dollar estate could quickly become 4.5 million due to taxes, court costs, or other fees. However, if you communicate your intent to name someone as the executor of your estate before doing so you will know whether you will need to name another person, or your original executor will be happy to step up to the plate and act in this capacity on behalf of your estate.
The executor should know where to find copies of your will, where the original will be kept, and the location of other important documents and property within your home. This is basic information to provide him or her which may seem like you are sharing too much information but in reality, this will be important to keep him or her abreast of while you still can. If you are naming a loved one as executor that person is going to be very sad when you pass away. The last thing that you want to do in that situation is cause him or her to look through every nook and cranny of your home to locate your will. Rather, you want to let him or her know in advance where to find your will so that it can be a quick process to begin sorting out your estate.
Next, it is helpful to have a reading of the will before you pass away. You can either have the will read aloud to people in your family or individually talk to family members about what is included in your will. This will allow them to be updated on if they are included and can talk to you about why you made the decision(s) that you did. It is not easy to hear about being left out of a will, so to speak. You may have family members who are upset that they were not included in the will when they had assumed otherwise. However, by informing the person that he or she is not going to receive property in your current version of the will you may be able to help avoid confusion and frustration at the time of your passing. By keeping everyone in the dark until you pass away you run the risk of having the family focus more on property than on each other during the grieving process.
The bottom line is that there is a fair amount of planning that should go into the process of creating a will. Once you create the will that is only part of the process given that you need to reevaluate what is included in the will regularly. Circumstances change and your will need to be able to change along with those circumstances. Death, divorce, and a host of other changes demand that you will keep up with the times. Working with an experienced estate planning attorney with the Law Office of Bryan Fagan is the best way to ensure that these changes are taken into consideration properly.
Questions about the material contained in today’s blog post? Contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan
If you have any questions about the material contained in today's blog post, please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan. Our licensed estate planning and probate attorneys offer free of charge consultations six days a week in person, over the phone, and via video. These consultations are a great way for you to learn more about the world of estate planning as well as about how your family may be impacted by the filing of a probate case.