How to keep your will safe

The executor needs to find the will for probate to begin

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Elissa SuhSenior Editor & Disability Insurance ExpertElissa Suh is a disability insurance expert and a former senior editor at Policygenius, where she also covered wills, trusts, and advance planning. Her work has appeared in MarketWatch, CNBC, PBS, Inverse, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and more.

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The last will and testament is an important part of an estate plan that distributes your assets and belongings to beneficiaries and loved ones when you die. Once you have a legally enforceable will — after having the document witnessed and maybe even notarized — you’ll need to find a place to store it. If the will can’t be found after you die, your property and assets may be distributed as if there was no will at all, throwing a wrench in any estate planning you may have done to ensure a secure financial future for your loved ones.

Your will is an important estate planning document and should be stored in a place that is safe yet easily accessible to beneficiaries or loved ones who can find it once you pass away. You may want to store it with other documents like your life insurance policy and tax returns.

Key takeaways

  • If no one can find the will, then your assets will be distributed according to state intestacy law.

  • Tell someone where the will is, no matter where you decide to store it.

  • It’s a good idea to have a digital backup of your will, but you should also have a hard copy.

What happens if no one finds your will

After you pass away, a court will need to prove your will in a process called probate. (Proving the will means validating the legality of the document.) Your appointed executor must bring the will to the local probate court, and if your will can’t be located, then the court will proceed as if you never wrote one.

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All probatable property and assets (some assets, like payable-on-death accounts or assets in a trust are not subject to probate) will be distributed according to the state law of intestacy, which bequeaths property to your closest family members first. This may not seem like a big drawback if you’re married and live a community property state, but if you wrote specific instructions for your property to be left to a more distant relative like a nephew or cousin as opposed to a spouse, they may be ignored.

Additionally, if you named a guardian for your minor children in your will, the court may have to appoint one instead if they can’t find the will that states your final wishes.

Where to store a will

There is no perfect place to store a will, but some options are better than others. A filing cabinet or drawer that you can lock may be sufficient for most people. Consider a personal safe that is flood or fireproof if you live in an area that is prone to these conditions. Remember to leave a key with someone that you trust. No matter where or how you decide to store your will, be sure to tell someone where it is, like your executor or a beneficiary.

Lastly, if you update your will or add a codicil, get rid of the old one and replace it with the newer version to avoid any confusion.

Leave it with a lawyer or executor

If you continue to work with an estate planning attorney, then letting then keep a copy of the will is one of the most practical options. They may charge you a nominal fee. Keep in mind that if an attorney closes his offices or the executor moves out of town, you’ll need to retrieve your will and find a new place to store it.

File it with a probate court

You might be able to file your will with the county clerk at your local courthouse for a fee, though it’s not always necessary. The advantage of storing your will this way is that when you die, probate may happen more quickly since your will is already on record. If you move out of the area, don’t forget to take your will.

Use digital storage for a backup

Online document storage has also become popular in recent years and specific cloud services exist explicitly for safekeeping documents like wills or a trust document. While convenient, you should only store your will digitally as a back up, since some state probate courts still require the original signed document. You may have to pay monthly for certain cloud storage services, and keep in mind that documents backed up locally on your hard drive can be lost in the event that your computer is stolen.

Be careful about using a safe deposit box

Some people may be inclined to store their will in a safe deposit box, which is often rented at a bank, but this isn’t always the best idea. There is still a risk of losing your items, especially if the bank from which you rent the box closes or merges. The contents of safe deposit boxes are not protected by any federal law.

If you do decide to use a safe deposit box, you should add a joint owner who can also access it. A court order may be required to open the box after you die if it can’t be opened, and this will ultimately delay probate.

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