An understated, but very important, part of estate planning is properly organizing your documents. This includes not only putting them in the right place but keeping a record of where and how to access them. To avoid the stress of losing a document when you or your loved ones need it most, keep reading.  

Which Documents Should I Keep? 

There are some documents that you will want to hang on to forever and some that you should keep for a few years.

Documents You Should Always Have  

These following documents should always be available, and you should properly store them to ensure you will have them when you need them: 

  • Birth certificates 
  • Death certificates  
  • Marriage license  
  • Social Security card 
  • Court orders 
  • Deeds or car titles 
  • Your current insurance policies 
  • Your current estate planning documents 

Documents You Should Only Keep Temporarily  

Some documents lose importance as time goes by. However, it would help if you hung on to the following documents for a few years (typically, between five and seven years): 

  • Papers related to charitable donations 
  • Tax documents 
  • Credit card statements 
  • Cancelled checks 
  • Bank statements 

Why Is It Important to Keep Some Documents?  

Should you pass away, it is crucial to have kept certain documents because the probate court may request them after your death. Maintaining important documents will help your family close your estate. 

If you are appointed a fiduciary role over someone else, for example given Power of Attorney, some of your responsibilities may require showing documentation. For example, opening a bank account or gaining access to someone else’s, if they are deceased or incapacitated, will require proof of your authority to do so.  

Keeping them at Home 

Keeping your documents at home is the simplest option. Storing them in a private place where you know where they are is easy and free. It is best to keep your documents in a labeled binder, along with additional information about where else your documents and important possessions are, as well as how to access them. However, it is unsafe to rely on this option alone, as you risk misplacement of your papers or accidental destruction in the case of a flood or fire. 

Keeping them at Court 

It is crucial to keep the original, signed copy of a Will. Our most recommended option is to store your original Will at your county’s probate court, if that is an option. For a low cost, the Will can be stored indefinitely without the risk of accidental destruction or loss. After you pass away, it is kept secure and will only be released to your Executor. 

Using a Safety Deposit Box 

Renting a deposit box at an institution like a bank is typically a secure option. However, we do not recommend this for Will storage. After you pass, the box will not be accessible to your Executor. It adds to the workload, time, and cost of the already arduous probate process for the Court to authorize someone to open a deposit box. If the deposit box is located far away from your residence, your estate may also have to pay the Executor for her travel costs and time in order to open it. 

Keeping them Online 

Digitally storing all your documents can significantly cut down on clutter. Also, most documents besides a Will do not require you to have an authentic paper copy, and digital scans of other documents can be just as legally sound. It can also be an easy, low-cost option to store your documents indefinitely and to share them when the time is needed. Make sure to get high-quality, easily readable scans of each document. You can keep the files in a Cloud sharing service or on a USB drive. If you are using a Cloud service, check beforehand that it is secure from hacking and data breaches. It is good to keep digital files in multiple places as well, in case you lose a physical drive, your computer breaks down, or a Cloud service stops working. If your loved ones will need an account or password to access these files, make note of them and keep that information accessible to them.  

Our office uses a secure, accessible portal to provide clients with access to their documents.  

Read more about the digital side of estate planning in our Planning Your Digital Legacy article.   

In conclusion, it is good to securely store your documents in multiple places in order to create secure alternatives in case another option fails. For your executors and other people you trust, you should make note of how and where to access them. It is essential to have the information about where and how to access your documents written down, in case you pass without telling them or forget as part of becoming incapacitated.