If you’ve created a will, one of the things you should consider is where you’ll store it. Generally, you want to select a location accessible enough that your personal representative can find it, but also something that is safe from loss or destruction. If the will can’t be found, or if the will is destroyed, it’s generally as if there were no will at all.
There’s no one right answer to the question of where to store a will. Each of the methods I’m looking at have their advantages and disadvantages, and different people will probably prefer different solutions. We’re going to review 4 options:
- Filing the will with the court
- Leaving the will with the attorney that prepared it
- Putting the will in a safe deposit box
- Keeping the will with you
Filing the will with the court
In Missouri, you can file your will with the probate division of any circuit court. It probably makes the most sense to file the will in the court that covers the county you live in. Wills filed with the court must be wrapped or sealed, but exactly how it needs to be sealed is up to the specific court.
The greatest advantage of storing your will with the court is the safety the court offers. Courts are quite careful with their records, and have staff dedicated to maintaining and protecting those records. Also, courts don’t tend to move very often, and even if they do, they should be very easy to find.
However, filing a will with the court also has disadvantages. First, without instructions, your personal representative may not think to look for the will with the court. While it is true that the court will contact the person you designate on the seal once the court learns of your death, the court may not hear about your death for a while, or might have difficulty contacting the person you designated. Second, if you move, the people taking care of your estate might not think to check the courts covering your previous residences. Because of this, it is critical that you leave instructions about where your will may be found–which is a good idea no matter where you store your will.
Keeping the will with the estate planning attorney
Some attorneys will keep wills for their clients, especially those attorneys that focus on estate planning. A lawyer has a lot of incentive to keep a deposited will safe, and will usually use a safe deposit box or a safe. Additionally, if the personal representative is looking for an attorney to handle the probate, the lawyer holding the will may be interested in handling the probate.
However, attorneys change firms, retire, and die. If a long time passes between the creation of your estate plan and your death, you might lose contact with your attorney. Because attorneys’ offices are susceptible to fires, floods, and other disasters, you should find out how the attorney stores the documents. You should also plan on keeping track of that attorney’s whereabouts and keeping him or her apprised of yours.
Keeping the will in a safe deposit box
Banks have offered safe deposit boxes for keeping valuable and irreplaceable items for a long time. Like an attorney, the bank has a lot of incentive to keep its safe deposit boxes safe, and they’re usually well-guarded.
Using a safe deposit box also has some drawbacks. Renting your own safe deposit box costs money, and is an ongoing cost. The other potential drawback of using a safe deposit box is the ability of your loved ones to access the safe deposit box when you die. In some cases, people have reported that they’ve been unable to access a safe deposit box once the person leasing the box dies. This problem can be avoided, depending on how the bank’s safe deposit box lease agreement is worded. Missouri law allows for joint renters of a box so that a surviving joint renter could access the box. If you get a safe deposit box alone, Missouri law still allows banks to permit interested parties to search for a will in a safe deposit box. Because banks can–but aren’t required to–have these provisions in their lease agreements, you should read your lease agreement and make sure you understand what the bank will allow in the event of your death.
Keeping the will with you
Another option is to put the will somewhere else for safekeeping. If you’re protecting a will on your own, I suggest that you do your best to prevent loss, theft, fire damage, and water damage. You can find a variety of locking, fire resistant boxes of various strengths and sizes at office supply and other stores. You should restrict access to the box by limiting knowledge of the combination or access to the keys. Keeping documents in zip-up plastic bags inside airtight containers can help prevent water damage. Incidentally, if you need to try to save water-damaged documents, the National Archives has a guide for how to salvage those documents.
Of course, this also means that you have to limit access, obtain the storage units, and keep watch over the documents, rather than leaving it up to someone else.
But what if you lose your will?
Despite your best efforts, it’s possible for a will to be lost, misplaced, or destroyed. If you discover your will is lost, contact the lawyer that drafted the will. I can’t speak for every lawyer’s recordkeeping system, but there’s a good chance that the attorney will have a file with copies of the original will, and the attorney may be able to recreate the will and have you execute it.
Photo credit: Flickr user Cory Doctorow, https://www.flickr.com/photos/doctorow/2966544973/, licensed under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/