Writing a last will and testament is a big step. But if your loved ones don’t know where to find your will, how much good will it do?
Short answer: Not much.
If no one can find your will after you’re gone, it’s basically the same as if you hadn’t made one in the first place. The court will act as though you died intestate, which is the technical term for someone who died without a will or an estate plan. That means that a probate judge will decide who should get your belongings—and who should take care of your children.
Generally, the court makes this determination based on what family members are closest to you as defined by your state’s laws. So if, say, you wanted your cousin to take care of your children because you don’t get along with your brother . . . the court might still choose your brother.
Even in today’s digital age, your survivors are likely to need the physically signed, paper original of your will. That’s why it’s key to store your will somewhere safe. And, most importantly, to tell your executor and other close family members where to find it.
Here are some options when you’re deciding where to store your will:
Many people who choose to store their wills at home put the document in a safe to ensure its safekeeping (heh, get it?). There are two main reasons for this.
First, it enables a degree of privacy. If you don’t want your family to read your last wishes while you’re still around, putting the document in a safe keeps it out of regular circulation. Second and more importantly, the original wet-ink version of your will is very important, so a safe can help protect this crucial piece of paper in case your house were to flood or meet with some other natural disaster.
If you’re installing a safe, it’d be most ideal to go with one that’s heavy or even built into your house, to avoid a thief from possibly running away with the safe itself.
This approach can be a good one, but the biggest downfall of using a safe is if your survivors don’t know the combination to get into it. So, if you do want to keep your will locked up, the absolute most important step is to ensure that your key people know how to access it.
If you don’t feel like investing in a safe, or if you don’t feel comfortable keeping your will somewhere so inaccessible that your survivors might struggle to get to it, you could simply store your document somewhere at home.
Many people choose a desk drawer or cabinet. If you do this, however, your main risk factor will be if your home were flooded or your physical will got otherwise damaged or lost. So, when choosing a spot, look for somewhere that’s:
Off the ground: Flood water generally starts from the bottom up, so go with a high shelf.
Logical: Try not to pull something too slick, like hiding your will under a mattress or inside the pages of a book—remember, your family will still need to find it again.
Not in your freezer: We’ve heard of people wrapping their wills in plastic and popping them into the freezer. You can try this if you want, but not only might it get covered in pizza stains or soggy if the power goes out and your freezer melts, but your family may not easily find it there.
Since your executor is the person who’s going to carry out your wishes anyway, you might give it to them now for safekeeping. Likewise, you could give your will to the legal guardian you chose to watch over your kids if something were to happen to you—because arguably they’re one of the most important parts of your will.
Of course, if you give your will to this person, they’ll be able to read it. If you’re fine with that, then that isn’t an issue. Especially for your executor and legal guardian, they should really know their own roles in your will, anyway. But if you have listed any beneficiaries (or excluded any beneficiaries) that aren’t public knowledge and you’re worried about them spilling the beans, then that’s something to consider.
You can always give your will to this person in a sealed envelope and request that they not look at it until after your death. If you trust this person to abide by your wishes, that’s not a bad idea. It’s really just a matter of trust—but presumably this is someone you trust deeply to honor your wishes.
If you do have your executor or legal guardian store your will, just make sure that they have a secure place to store it and that you know how to get it back if they were to pass away before you. It’ll also be extra important to let this person know whenever you update your will, so they don’t attempt to bring your old version into probate court.
If you end up choosing a new executor later on, you’ll want to take back the old will from your prior executor and store the new version with someone else (like the new executor).
You may be able to file your will with the county clerk’s office, but your family needs to know it’s there—and if you move away, the situation could get complicated.
Filing with the county clerk will generally cost a small fee, and they’ll safely keep your original will. This can be a good solution, as long as your executor, beneficiaries and other key people know that you have done this. Because filing with the court is optional, not everyone does it. That means that your family may not think to look there unless you specifically tell them to.
And here’s the issue with moving: If you move to a different county but your will stays behind, your beneficiaries might really not know where to find your will (they may think to look at your current county clerk’s office, but will they remember to look in the county where you lived two moves ago?). Plus, if you update your will and need to make changes, you may have to travel to your old county clerk’s office to make the update or get the old version back.
If you file your will with the probate court, this may make it a public record in some states, meaning that other people can see it. If you’re concerned about privacy, that could be an issue. (That said, in most states your will only becomes a public record after you pass away and the case goes through the probate process.)
Another option is to have your attorney hold onto your will for you, as long as they’ll be your lawyer for the long-term, foreseeable future. Your lawyer is ethically and legally bound to keep these documents confidential and it often doesn’t cost much (or anything) for them to hold onto the original documents for you. Law offices often have their own vaults or safe deposit boxes for client paperwork.
That said, as with all these other storage ideas, your family will need to know where to look for your will when the time comes. In this case, that means they’d need to know who your attorney is and that that person has your will.
There are a few caveats here, however:
If you switch attorneys, you’ll need to make sure you get back your will documents.
If your attorney dies before you, or retires, or changes firms, your family may have trouble locating your will.
Make sure your executor is armed with your lawyer’s name, number and address.
If nothing else, it’s a good idea for your lawyer to hang onto signed copies of all your estate planning paperwork. If the originals are accidentally destroyed, that’ll make it easier and faster to create new versions based on the old ones.
Plenty of people keep their will in a safety deposit box because it’s private and access is limited to people with keys to the box who are listed on the safe deposit box contract. That said, this isn’t always the best idea for a few reasons:
In some states, if your safe deposit box isn’t jointly owned, your family might have to get a court order just to get into your box and see what’s there. That can present a big hassle and can delay the probate process, not to mention leaving your loved ones at loose ends without knowing your wishes.
If your loved ones don’t know where you keep the safe deposit box (or that you even have one at all), they may not even know how to start looking for your will or that they may need to get a court order.
You’ll always need to update your safe deposit box with the most recent version of your will, as it can be more problematic if you have an out-of-date version in there.
Safe deposit boxes may not actually be as safe as their reputation would make them seem. Counterintuitively, there have been reports of the contents of these boxes being moved without their owners’ knowledge, or resold, or stolen, and these boxes are not governed or protected by federal law. (For example, if someone with a similar box number is late on payments and gets evicted, but a bank employee accidentally removes your box instead . . . you might not have any legal protections.)
If you do want to go the safe deposit box route, then you might consider listing it in the name of your revocable living trust. That way, the trustee can access your box legally from the get-go. And if you don’t want to deal with creating a trust, you can also add someone as a joint owner on your safe deposit box, so they can get in and distribute your documents accordingly. You might also be able to grant your executor, legal guardian or other trusted person access to your box by filling out a form at your bank, and you could give them an extra key, too.
If there’s one takeaway from this article, it’s that your loved ones seriously need to know where to find your will, wherever you choose to keep it. That means:
Make sure to inform the executor of your will, who’s the person who’ll actually carry out your wishes—this is always important, but especially if you’re keeping your will behind lock and key.
Let your backup (called a “contingent”) executor know as well. If something happens to your first-choice executor, you’ll want to make sure someone knows how to get in there.
Consider informing your children’s legal guardian and the beneficiaries you’ve chosen, or other key family members.
If you made your will with Fabric, you can share key information with your beneficiary, executor and legal guardian. They can login to their own Fabric accounts (or on the Fabric app) and see the key info from your will, such as their own roles. Note that probate will generally still require the physical, signed copy, but sharing digitally can be a great way to keep everybody on the same page.
While you’re going through the process of writing a will and storing it safely, this is a good time to consider the other documents you need to have in order to help protect your family and safeguard your wishes.
Living will: Alongside a healthcare proxy, this document tells your loved ones about your wishes in case you were to be injured or incapacitated, and who should be making decisions on your behalf.
Trust funds: If a will dictates who should get your assets, a trust fund dictates how those assets should be inherited.
Power of attorney: A power of attorney (POA) is a document that enables someone else to make legal and financial decisions on your behalf, such as if you were incapacitated or couldn’t do so on your own.
Ethical will: This isn’t a legal or binding document, but some people choose to write out a more qualitative take on their wishes for their loved ones, family history and lessons they want to pass down. If you’re thinking about where to store your will, you might also store your ethical will alongside it.
Many people who benefit from a will would also benefit from life insurance. Life insurance is especially important if anyone relies on you financially. Learn more about how life insurance works and see if life insurance makes sense for you.
Fabric exists to help young families master their money. Our articles abide by strict editorial standards.
This article is meant to provide general information and not to provide any specific legal advice or to serve as the basis for any decisions.
Fabric isn’t a law firm and we aren’t licensed to practice law or to provide any legal advice. If you do need legal advice for your specific situation, you should consult with a licensed attorney and/or tax professional.
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