First Thing: Make Sure You Have Prepared the Basics
Creating and executing estate planning documents is just the first step. Once you have completed the documents, you need to know what to do with them.
All estate plans should include, at minimum, two important planning instruments: a durable power of attorney and a will. A trust can also be useful to avoid probate and to manage your estate both during your life and after you are gone. In addition, a health care power of attorney allows you to appoint someone to make medical decisions on your behalf. Once you have all these essential estate planning documents, you need to make sure they are stored properly and get to the right people.
Second: Store Your Estate Planning Documents Properly
Your estate planning documents should be stored in a safe, secure location that is accessible to your personal representative (also called an executor), the person you appoint to handle your estate’s affairs after your passing. You should use a water- and fire-proof safe or filing cabinet. Many people use a safe deposit box in a bank, but these can be hard for your representative to access at your death. Often the documents giving your personal representative the right to access the safe deposit box are themselves in the box. If you do use a safe deposit box, you should have a joint owner on the account.
Third: Spread the Word
It is critical that you tell your personal representative where your estate planning documents are located so that he or she can easily access them when needed. If the documents are locked away, your representative needs to know the combination or where the key is located.
You should also talk to other people who might be affected --such as your agent under a power of attorney and health care power of attorney--about what you want if you are unable to communicate your wishes yourself. Doing this ahead of time will help them execute your wishes when the time comes. You may want to give family members copies of your documents. If an original document is lost, the court may accept a copy in some circumstances.
Lastly: Avoid Confusion
Make sure you destroy any old estate planning documents that are no longer valid. Old documents can cause confusion among family members and could lead to litigation.
In addition, do not write on your current documents. If you want to make a change, contact us to formally change the document. Handwritten additions are usually not valid and could raise questions about the document (For more details read our post: What Makes a Will Valid? Dramatic Wills: Scribbled Notes, Videos and Last Wishes.)