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Randall D. Armour: Have you seen your estate-planning documents lately?

It's Your Money

Posted: March 24, 2010 4:31 p.m.
Updated: March 25, 2010 4:30 a.m.
You have prepared your trust, will, power of attorney, advance health care directive and all of the other documents necessary to make life easier for your loved ones upon your death or incapacity.

Now where do you keep all of these important documents?

Estate-planning documents should be stored in a safe and secure place, but they also must be accessible if something happens to you. You must keep in mind that most of these documents may not be required until after your death or incapacity. In other words, when you are no longer able to tell anyone where you put them.

I am often asked to review or update estate plans that I did not originally draft and that may have been prepared years or decades earlier. In these cases, I tell the clients to bring in the original documents rather than copies.

Despite these instructions, copies are often brought to the meeting, and when I inquire about the original documents the typical response is, “I thought these were the original documents.” After convincing them that they are actually copies, the clients sometimes have no idea where the original documents are located.

If the original documents cannot be found, it may be very difficult or impossible to carry out your wishes, even when copies are available.

Copies of trusts, wills and financial powers of attorney can sometimes be used with court confirmation, but it is usually presumed that if the original documents cannot be found it is because the documents were destroyed with the intent to revoke them.

This presumption must be overcome with evidence to the contrary. I do not generally advise that copies be given to the successor trustees, executors, agents or beneficiaries, because it may lead to an uncomfortable situation if you decide to make changes.

Copies of the advance health care directive, however, should be given to your health care agents and alternates as well as to your doctors and other health care providers. Copies of this document are accepted and may be needed immediately if there is a health-related emergency.

Some attorneys and law offices will offer to store the original documents for you. This is fine unless the attorney retires or dies before the documents are needed. There is also no guarantee that even large law firms will be around in several years.

If an attorney or law firm has your original documents, you may want to contact the attorney or firm periodically or ask them to return the original documents to you.

Many people keep these documents in bank safe deposit boxes or home safes. If you do this, make sure that the people who will need the documents have access to the box or have the combination to the safe. I believe that a better solution may be a fire- and water-resistant box, which is where I keep my documents.

Wherever you decide to keep your documents, you should tell the people that you want to find them where they are, or leave them someplace where they are sure to be found. It is extremely frustrating to know that someone had an estate plan which cannot be found.

Attorney Randall D. Armour practices in the areas of estate planning, probate and trust administration. “It’s Your Money” appears Thursdays and rotates between a handful of the valley’s financial professionals. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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