In the event that you become incapacitated or pass away, the individuals named within your estate planning documents to handle your affairs will need access to your original documents quickly. It is crucial that they have access to the documents in order to maintain a steady management of your medical, financial, funeral, and estate administration matters.
Due to the sensitive nature of Wills, Trusts, Power of Attorney, and Living Wills, many people believe that the best place to keep these legal documents is in their safe deposit box. However, this may not always be the case. There are a number of considerations to take into account should you choose to keep your original estate planning documents in your safe deposit box.
Who will have access to your safe deposit box?
Generally, banks or credit unions will only allow access to owners or lessors of the safe deposit box. Typically, if the person attempting to gain access to the safe deposit box is not a named owner or lessor of the box, they will need a court order to gain access. Obtaining a court order can be time consuming and expensive.
The easiest way to provide unobstructed access upon your incapacity or death is to add a co-owner or co-lessee; thereby granting the responsible individuals equal rights. However, that can also be the downside because access is not limited to your incapacity or death. Therefore, carefully consider if you want to permit such unrestricted access.
Who should know about your safe deposit box?
If you choose not to name a co-owner or co-lessee, at the very least the responsible individuals should know that your original estate planning documents are stored in your safe deposit box. They should also know the location of the box and where to find the key. In Maryland, if those individuals know you executed estate planning documents but cannot find the originals, there will be an assumption that you destroyed the documents. The court will proceed as if you never created an estate plan. This will result in your assets going through the public court supervised, potentially costly, probate process. You do not want your original estate planning documents sitting in your safe deposit box unknown to those who need them, thereby negating all of the hard work you put into planning.
When will access be granted?
Even if you name a co-owner or have a court order, access still may be restricted simply based on the operating hours of the institution. Since safe deposit boxes are located in banks and credit unions, they often have shorter business hours and are closed on holidays and weekends.
What are the alternatives for secure document storage?
Safe deposit boxes were once the favored manner to store original estate planning documents. They have since fallen out of favor due to the numerous challenges regarding access. In fact, as of February 2023, the AARP named estate planning and funeral instructions on a list of “Worst Things to Store in Safe Deposit Box.”
Perhaps a better location for your original estate planning documents is a secure, dry, fire proof location that is accessible. Many people use a fireproof safe within their own home. If you choose to use a safe, ensure the responsible individuals know the location of the safe and the combination to avoid similar problems as those of a safe deposit box. Whatever manner of storing your original estate planning documents you choose, the important thing is that the people who will need to use them know where there are and how to quickly access them.
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