Your last will and testament is probably the most important document you will ever sign. It’s the one item that simply must be located when the need arises. It says who will settle your estate and who will inherit your worldly goods. It can also nominate guardians for your children, appoint trustees, and disinherit hostile relations. Where should you keep such a vital document? Probably not where you might think.
Wills are decidedly low-tech instruments. Despite their importance, they consist of nothing more than paper bearing printed words and a “wet” signature. In order to open an estate, you need to have the original will – a photocopy or electronic file will not suffice. It’s essential, then, that the hand-signed document be protected from harm and readily available when the need arises.
With that in mind, a bank safe deposit box might seem to be a good place to store your will. After all, it’s supposedly safe from fire and theft. But as a recent New York Times article reveals, items stored in safe deposit boxes sometimes go missing. When this happens, whether through burglary or, more often, administrative error, the bank may well be insulated from any liability. And in the case of an original will, no amount of money could replace the missing document.
What’s more, a safe deposit box can be extremely difficult to access after the owner dies. If the box was in the owner’s name alone, only the personal representative (executor) of the estate will be authorized to open the box. But here’s the catch – the personal representative can’t be appointed without having the will in the first place.
Only by submitting the will to the Register of Wills and receiving “letters of administration” does that personal representative gain the legal authority necessary to access the estate assets, which include the contents of a safe deposit box. If the will is locked away, the would-be personal representative may have to obtain a limited court order simply to access the box and retrieve the document.
As smart as it sounds, putting your will in a safe deposit box can lead to unnecessary trouble and expense.
Another option is to file the will with the Register of Wills for the county where you live. For a modest fee, the Register will place the will in “safekeeping” until it’s needed. Even better, the attorney who prepares your will may provide a similar service using the law firm’s secured storage, but at no charge.
If you prefer to keep your will at home, the best place to store it is probably a home fire safe. Available at many hardware and office-supply stores, these sturdy units are inexpensive and extremely practical. In addition to safeguarding your will, they can be used to hold other important papers, such as your passport, durable power of attorney, and advance medical directive.
If you don’t have a will, a phone call to an estates & trusts lawyer is all it takes to get the process started. As part of a complete estate plan, a valid will can help ensure that your final wishes are carried out. It will also give you peace of mind knowing that life’s most important document is signed and ready to go when the need arises.
Lee Carpenter is a partner at the Baltimore law firm of Niles, Barton & Wilmer and an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law. He can be reached at 410-783-6349 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more about LGBT estate planning at mdlgbtestateplanning.com.
This article is intended to provide general information, not specific legal advice.