One of the most practical questions that you can ask regarding the drafting process associated with your last will is where to store the document. In this age of computers, cell phones, and other digital tools we so often do not even have to consider where to physically keep anything anymore. Rather, everything we have is digital and that can be found in the cloud or on a server, or somewhere. Much of the time the documents that we interact with daily are never actually made physical at all.
When you were working on drafting a will that may have been the case for you and your family. Specifically, you may have been drafting and redrafting certain portions of the document along with anyone who is assisting you. However, that digital document must become a physical document by the time the process is over with. As you probably now know two witnesses must have been present for your signature on the document. Additionally, many people have a notary public notarize the document to certify that the process was followed correctly.
A piece of advice that I give to clients is for them to keep their will in an obvious location. Remember that your will is not a sacred document or a treasure map. It does not need to be something that your family or executor needs to work incredibly hard to locate once you pass away. Brother, you should keep the document in a safe place but one that can be reached easily after you pass away. This could be in a safety deposit box, desk drawer, file cabinet or someplace safe and dry. Before your passing, you should have hopefully destroyed any prior versions of your will so that there are no points of confusion in terms of which will is valid in which one is not.
Something that I think is a great idea would be to Have a meeting with your family as soon as your will is created. The people in attendance at this meeting could be more than just your family if you wish to include friends or other people as beneficiaries. You can walk them through the different portions of your will and help them to understand who is getting what. This way there will be no surprises when you pass away, and your friends and family can focus on grieving your loss rather than being shocked or dismayed at the contents of your will.
Next, you should inform the executor of your will, your spouse, or any others very close to you of the actual location of your will. You do not necessarily need to share the location of your will with every person that will be a beneficiary of yours. However, I do think that it is wise to share with at least a few people where your will is and how to access it.
What are some different options when it comes to storing your will?
I think one of the most obvious places that many people decide to store their will during their life is in their safe. Most of us have safes in our homes. The saves can be used to store cash, jewelry, coins, collectibles, firearms, and things of this nature. The item that you store in a safe could be valuable, dangerous, or both. For that reason, you want to make sure that no one but you can have access to the safe during your life. However, if you are comfortable enough naming someone as the executor of your estate you should also feel comfortable enough to share with them the combination to the safe or the knowledge of how to access its contents.
The tried-and-true location four-wheel if not in a safe would be your desk drawer. The desk drawer or file cabinet requires a key to gain entry then you should have at least one copy of your original key period that copy can be stored somewhere else in the house or even can be given to your executor. Whatever method you choose to employ for storing your will my advice would be to focus on safety and dryness. Remember that we live in Southeast Texas where it is very humid much of the year. As a result, you do not want to store the will in a place where it could potentially get moist or damaged due to the weather we experience here.
Another option would be to work with an experienced estate planning attorney who can help you to store the document in their office. You can speak to the attorney about their advice on where to keep your will and can even determine whether their office is a good place for you and your family to store the will. The benefit of storing it with your attorney is that it is out of sight and out of mind while it cannot be lost or misplaced by you. The downside to having the will with the attorney is that you may feel some discomfort keeping your will at a location outside your home and it is not always easy to check up on the wheel if you wanted to review something contained within it.
Earlier in your blog post, we talked about storing your will in a safety deposit box as a viable option. I think there is nothing wrong with storing your will in a safety deposit box so long as someone else knows that the will is in the safety deposit box or has access to the box. Typically, a bank or other financial institution will allow you to be able to have a second person obtain a key for your safety deposit box. In most cases, I believe that the second person would be your spouse or the executor of your estate. You should make sure that the executor knows where your will is and that he or she has a copy of the key to that safety deposit box.
The bottom line is that no matter what you decide to do as far as storing your will you should communicate clearly to the people closest to you where the will is and how they can obtain it in the event of your passing. I am fond of telling people that to be unclear is to be unkind. All this means is that if you are not clear with people about your expectations or instructions then you are doing them a disservice. If you want these folks to be able to follow through with your wishes upon your passing and you need to be clear with them as soon as possible about what those wishes are and where those wishes will be stored.
If you are wondering about where to store your will then you've already followed through with the first step of the process, drafting and signing the will. The next step would be to inform them of where you plan on storing the will as well as sharing with them its contents hopefully well before you pass away. If you update the will or change the contents you should also update the beneficiaries, executor, and your family of those changes. This can be a critical step to increasing the Peace of Mind of your relatives but also providing you with the knowledge that you have done everything possible to perform sufficient planning for end-of-life purposes.
What should you do after your will is complete?
Once you have a will drafted that reflects your wishes for your estate after your passing you must get the will process completed. This entails finding two witnesses to view your signing the document. The two witnesses will also sign the document. A notary will notarize the document, finally. Now you have a will. Whether it is a valid will that accurately reflects your wishes is a different subject altogether. However, it is a will, nonetheless.
You may be wondering what it is that you need to know- if anything. Can you throw the will in your desk drawer and put your feet up for the rest of your life, secure in the knowledge that you have completed a major step in the estate planning process? I think there are some additional steps that you can investigate that could be of a great amount of benefit for you and your family.
First, you can walk through all the property that you and your spouse own and create an inventory. From the most valuable items that you own to the least valuable an inventory can organize your property and provide an approximate value for each item. You can begin to create the inventory at any time but remember that none of us know the exact moment that our passing will occur. As a result, it makes a great deal of sense to create an inventory like this ASAP either before the will is drafted or after you have completed it.
Most people get into a situation where their inventory is much longer than they would have guessed it would be when the process started. In that case, you can keep track of the information that you start with and add names of people as beneficiaries as you go along. This way you can keep up with the changes and add people that can benefit from your generosity.
Consider assets that you can’t physically touch
When we think of property, we usually consider physical objects- items that you can touch. Instead of taking this perspective, you should think more in terms of physical objects and intangible property. Intangible property could be retirement accounts, savings accounts, cryptocurrency, brokerage accounts, and things of this nature. Life insurance policies will pass outside of your will, but you may want to include information about the policy within your will itself.
Here is where you can earn brownie points from those around you. Include account numbers and the location of any documents that pertain to these accounts within your will. The brokerage or investment firms that house each investment, their phone number, and address will be the icing on the cake. Both the probate court, your executor, and beneficiaries will thank you for doing this. There is nothing worse for these groups of people to have to struggle to dig up information on a 401K that you never rolled over from a job you had twenty-five years ago. Do these folks a favor and step up to the plate when it comes to notating where these items can be found. You won’t be around for them to thank you, but you can rest easy now knowing that just everyone's life is easier.
Debts- they matter, so start thinking about them
If the subject of death and end of life planning isn't enough of a bummer for you then I would like to share with you this though: if you have debts at the end of your life, then there is a chance that the property that we just finished discussing will never make it into the hands of your beneficiaries. If you have debts in your name at the time of your passing, then your property would have to be sold off to pay those debts. If that isn’t a good reason to never go into debt, I don’t know what is.
Your home mortgage, credit card debt, some student loans, etc. These are all debts that will stick with you after your passing. Federally insured student loans have historically been discharged at the passing of a borrower. When your estate goes through probate, and if you have creditors then it probably will end up being probated, your executor must notify creditors of your passing and the probating of your will. In that case, the creditors will have an opportunity to come forward and pursue their debt.
If your estate is substantial and your debts are not the executor can work with those creditors and pay the debts accordingly. The probate court would then make determinations to pay your beneficiaries with the remaining property. Sounds less than ideal but I can tell you that it beats having all of your money sucked up by a credit card company.
When you draft your will, you can spell out the names, account numbers, and other information about any debts that you own. Phone numbers and contact information for these places are usually very helpful. What I tell clients all the time is to go ahead and run a credit check on yourself periodically to see what debts are out there and left unpaid. That way you can know exactly what you're up against as far as bills are concerned.
Another benefit of checking your credit report periodically is that you can make sure that all your debts look on up and up. For example, if you are in a situation where you are divorced it is not uncommon for ex-spouses to use your information to open credit accounts because they know your pertinent information. I'm not saying that this is commonplace, but I am saying that it can and does happen. That being said- you can be diligent and make sure that you are not counted among those people to whom this can happen.
Think about your retirement accounts
The amount of time that we individually think about our retirement accounts probably varies most significantly based on our ages. If you are an older person who is nearing the end of your working life you are probably very aware of what your accounts look like and how you plan on utilizing them. If you are retired then these retirement accounts likely represent the main way that you subsist. On the other hand, if you are a younger person then you may not even have retirement planned for. If you do, it's probably a direct deposit at the beginning of the month, and then forget about it type of situation. When you get an email or letter in the mail regarding shareholder or investor notifications, they probably end up in the recycling bin quickly.
I am here to say that this is fine for some times in your life, but it is probably not the best idea to be ignorant of these accounts as you prepare for will drafting and estate planning scenarios. Rather, you should take the time to learn about these accounts as much as possible when you have the opportunity. You should run through each account and see who you have listed as beneficiary and secondary beneficiary. These accounts pass to beneficiaries without having to go through probate. Make sure that these accounts are invested in the funds you like and that you have your account representative’s phone numbers handy.
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 probate law and estate planning attorneys offer free of charge consultations six days a week in person, the phone, and via video. These consultations are a great opportunity for you to learn more about how your family's circumstances may be impacted by the filing of a probate case.