As a society, we have grown accustomed to electronically filing and accessing important documents, including bank statements, health records, and tax returns. In my years of litigation as an Air Force JAG (a worldwide practice), we relied almost exclusively on digitally-submitted court documents. Indeed, in most areas of the law, a digital (or paper) copy will now be a sufficient substitute for an original document. However, when it comes to your estate plan, it is crucial that you preserve your original, signed will in order to ensure a smooth probate process. The following are some basic tips:
First, make sure your family members know where to find your estate planning documents. I cannot emphasize this enough. Historically, many clients opted to store their will in a bank safe deposit box. However, if the family did not know where to look for the will, it was lost forever. Also, in many states it takes a court order for a family to open a safe deposit box after the owner’s death.
Filing the original will in your attorney’s safe may be another option. As an additional benefit, your attorney may be willing to periodically check in with you to make sure the document is up to date. But it is again crucial that your family know where it is. It is also worth considering the possibility that you might move in the future, and the family may forget to look for your will with your prior attorney.
A popular option today is for people to store their wills at home in a fireproof and waterproof safe, bolted into the house. Of course, it is important to ensure that your family knows where to look for your estate planning documents. And you should give a sufficient number of trustworthy people the safe combination.
If you grew up in the digital age, it may seem strange to worry about things like water damage, mold, fire, or physical destruction of your vital documents. However, in the area of wills, families need to think about ways to protect original paper copies, potentially for decades, from degradation, loss, theft, or alteration.
I recently read a fascinating article about a technology startup in my hometown of Naperville, IL. The company’s founder, Adam Justice, is pioneering using cloud-based WiFi-enabled sensors throughout the home or office. These sensors can alert the owner to potential physical security threats like moisture, fire, intruders, etc. Even in the seemingly low-tech topic of original will preservation, technology can have a role.