Protecting Important Documents

You are getting organized and one of the areas you think about is protecting your important documents and where you should keep them.  Let’s take a look at some possibilities. 

If you have completed your estate planning, the attorney with whom you worked may offer to keep your documents safeguarded for you.  They may have either a fireproof vault or bank safe deposit boxes where they can hold the documents for you.  This is not a bad idea because you know where your original documents are, know that they can be retrieved if needed and are better safeguarded if subjected to a fire or water damage.  However, not all attorneys have the facilities to offer such a service.  Be certain to ask your attorney if they can hold your original documents if they don’t offer. 

In the event you have your original estate planning documents as well as other important papers, where should you place them for safekeeping? 

Many individuals think that a bank safe deposit box is the best location.  However, while they may be safe, they may not be easily accessible.  Perhaps there would be a need for the documents at such time as the bank is closed.  Or the documents are needed and you are unable to visit the bank to retrieve them yourself.  Being that the bank will allow only authorized individuals to enter a safe deposit box, this may create problems.  Authority will be needed.  Further, while most banks will allow the intended executor to enter the safe deposit box of a deceased person to retrieve the Last Will and Testament and a cemetery deed, some banks will not allow this without a Court Order. 

An alternative is a fireproof safe.  I am not talking about one of those little “fireproof” boxes that many people have, thinking that their documents will be safe. Those little boxes are fireproof only to a certain temperature.  If investing in a fireproof safe, make certain that your selection protects to the highest temperature possible. 

Regardless of where you place your important papers, it is always a good idea to have copies of documents or at least the important pages in an alternative location.  Most of the time, attorneys will retain a copy of the signed documents electronically but it is not likely they would have any information regarding insurance policies, annuity contracts, etc.  You could always place these documents in a sealed envelope and give them to a third party for holding.

Electronic records are wonderful as they don’t take up space, but are they accessible?  You should have a “cheat sheet” of where to locate and access your electronic records.  This can be placed in a sealed envelope and marked with an indications such as “to be opened in the event of my death or disability” and placed in an easily found location in your home.    

Remember the saying that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. 

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Kay Sowa

About the Author

Kay Sowa is a paralegal in the Trusts and Estates Group at Capehart & Scatchard, P.A. She is an IRS Enrolled Agent, an Accredited Estate Planner®, and a Certified Trust and Financial Advisor. She oversees the trust and estate administration practice for the firm. She is an accomplished author and lecturer who has frequently spoken on behalf of a number of organizations including the National Business Institute and the Institute of Paralegal Education.

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