Estate Planning Pitfall: Your documents are hard to find

No matter how much time you invest in designing an estate plan that reflects your wishes, your efforts will be for naught if your family can’t find your documents. Here are several tips for ensuring that critical documents are readily accessible when needed:

Wills and trusts. Ask your accountant, attorney or other trusted advisor to keep your original will, living trust and other trust documents; and provide your family with his or her contact information. Be aware that it’s not advisable to place your will or living trust in a safe deposit box, however, as state law and bank policy will likely require that you present the original document or a court order to obtain access.

Financial documents. Make it easy for your family or other representatives to find life insurance policies; tax documents; deeds to real property; bank, brokerage, retirement account and credit card statements; stock certificates; and other important documents. Also provide contact information for key advisors, such as real estate attorneys, accountants, brokers and financial advisors.

There are many options for providing your loved ones with access to this information, including:

  • Renting a safe deposit box and instructing your family on how to obtain access,
  • Storing documents in a fireproof lockbox and providing your family with the location and the key or combination, and
  • Uploading digital backups of key documents to an online storage system. These systems provide family members or other representatives with access in the event you die or become disabled.

Health care documents. Consider providing “duplicate originals” or copies of powers of attorney, living wills or health care directives to the people authorized to make decisions on your behalf. You might also ask your physicians to keep duplicate originals or copies with your medical records.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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