One of the most difficult, yet important, decisions one can make is making a last will and testament. A will is a signed and witnessed written document that specifies, among other things, who is to receive their last possessions at the time of death. This can include real estate, bank accounts, and personal belongings. When the person who made the will passes away, an executor is appointed, whose duty it is to ensure the terms of the will are carried out.
After you've created a will, the next decision is where to store the will so that your executor can easily find the original document when needed. Because the executor will need the original will to handle your affairs efficiently, a will should be stored in a safe and accessible place, and the executor should know exactly where it is kept.
Not being able to get a hold of the original copy of your will can end up being a nightmare for your beneficiaries, both emotionally and financially. Below are ways to store the original copy of your last will and testament so that it is accessible to your executor after you are gone:
Safe deposit box
Many individuals believe the safest place to store a will is a safe deposit box. However, different states have explicit laws as to when a safe deposit box can be opened upon the owner's death and what documentation is required to open it. For example, in Virginia, a bank will allow a safe deposit box to be opened for the purpose of locating a will, but other states require the executor of the will or family members to obtain a court order to open the box. If you do choose to use a safe deposit box to store your will, make sure your executor and beneficiaries know exactly where the safe deposit box is located, and don't forget to grant the executor the legal authority to take possession of the will upon your death.
Having your attorney keep the original copy of your will can be beneficial if you are sure you will be retaining the same attorney or law firm for the remainder of your life. An attorney is obligated to keep a client's will confidential and may charge little or no fee to retain the original document. However, the executor and family members should be made aware of which attorney is in possession of your will, especially if it has been years since you have talked to the attorney. Even if you decide not to ask your attorney to keep the original copy of your will, your attorney may be asked to keep signed copies in case the original is lost or destroyed. A copy of the original will can sometimes be admitted to the probate court if the original is lost. However, this requires additional documentation and testimony.
If you decide to store the original copy of your will in your home, an option would be to store it in a waterproof and fireproof safe (ideally, the safe would be large and heavy or built into the structure of the home to help prevent thieves from taking the actual safe). Some people have also been known to store their will in a filing cabinet or a plastic bag in the freezer—but this is not recommended for obvious reasons. No matter where you decide to store your will, be sure to tell your executor and beneficiaries where you've put the will—after all, you want your will found when the time comes.
The county clerk
Depending on where you live, the county clerk may store the original copy of your will for a nominal fee. Although this may sound like a fail-safe solution for storing your last will, your named executor and beneficiaries may not consider the court when looking for the original will unless they are specifically told. To complicate matters, if you decide to move out of the county and your will remains in the original county, it may make it more difficult to travel to make changes to your will and doubly difficult for your beneficiaries to locate your will.
The most important thing to remember is, no matter where you decide to keep the original copy of your will, to tell your executor exactly where the document is stored. And just in case you forget, you might even want to make a note to yourself.