We seem to have touched on this topic a few times in this blog; how do you keep your Last Will and Testament safe and private, but accessible to your Executor at the appropriate time? It is a real balancing act that weighs up security, with the convenience of access for the Executor as well as the ease of updating and maintaining the document.
In the last few days and weeks the issue has become more prominent after the tsunami in Japan, the tornadoes in the US and the series of earthquakes in Asia. I read today of a Facebook group dedicated to “Pictures and Documents found after the April 27, 2011 Tornadoes” with the hope of reuniting important documents with their owners, and these documents include property deeds and a number of Last Will and Testaments.
We actually received calls from relatives of people impacted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 asking how they would attempt to locate a person’s Will after this type of disaster. And really there is no good answer that can be given.
Your options currently are to store your Will at home, maybe in a fireproof safe, or to store the document at a lawyer’s office or with a bank. Each option has its advantages and disadvantages, but in a catastrophic situation, none of these options is likely to help. We wrote previously about the proliferation of Will registries and how ineffective these services are, as they most often allow you to store a note with a description of where the document is stored, not the document itself (we actually feel that many of these services are close to being scams).
Storing your document at home is the best way to ensure that your Executor can access the document at the appropriate time; however, there doesn’t necessarily have to be a natural disaster for you to lose your document; a flood or house fire may put your Last Will and Testament at risk. Storing your document in a lawyer’s office probably makes the Will more secure and often documents are stored offsite; however, a lawyer’s office is as likely to fall victim to a tornado as much as a home, so it is worth asking the lawyer’s office exactly where the documents will be held. One cautionary note though is that your Executor needs to know where the document is stored, and it is not uncommon for law offices to merge and be acquired by other offices and so your Will could potentially outlive your law firm (it actually happened with my family).
The bank is the most secure, but your Executor faces a conundrum; how can they gain access to the deposit box, when the document that can provide them with the authorization sits in the deposit box. It is actually the least convenient of all options, and again, your Executor would have to know how to gain access at the appropriate time.
A quick word on copies. One seemingly obvious way of protecting your documents is to make a number of copies and store them in all kinds of different places. This unfortunately doesn’t work – there should only ever be one original document; copies should be clearly marked as copies. Every time a Will is updated, previous versions including all copies, should ideally be destroyed, but even if this isn’t done, a newly signed and dated Will effectively cancels (revokes) any previous Wills.
Unfortunately until the law manages to catch up with digital signatures, cloud computing, data encryption and all of the other technologies available to us today, a signed piece of paper is the only legal form of a Last Will and Testament, and as we know, pieces of paper don’t do very well in floods, winds, fires and exposure to countless other natural elements …. !