Where Should You Store Estate Planning Documents?

A man and a woman sitting on opposite ends of a couch, each holding financial papers.

Estate planning enables you to make sure your assets are distributed to people and organizations the way you intended after you're gone. Of course, this means documenting these wishes in several ways, including with a will and other legal paperwork.

Once your estate plan is in place, you need to find somewhere to stash those documents. But where? You should store your estate planning documents somewhere they're easy to access but safe from harm or prying eyes. Read on to find out where to keep your estate planning documents.

What Is Estate Planning?

Estate planning is the process of getting your financial affairs in order so that loved ones or friends can handle your estate when you're no longer here. Your estate might include cash, real estate, stocks, bonds, retirement funds, life insurance and valuables (like artwork or jewelry). An estate plan can map out how you want these possessions to be divided up among your loved ones or your favorite charities.

Among the estate planning documents you might need to store are:

  • Will: Also called a last will and testament, this document outlines how you want your belongings to be distributed and who you want to oversee this distribution (your executor). In a will, you also can name who you want to care for your minor children after you're gone.
  • Living will: This document details your preferences for end-of-life care.
  • Power of attorney: This document establishes who should make financial decisions for you when you're unable to do so, including paying your bills and managing your investments.
  • Medical power of attorney: This document explains how you want health care decisions to be made for you if you're unable to make those decisions.
  • Trust: This document controls the distribution of your assets, often in an attempt to reduce or wipe out estate taxes.
  • Life insurance policies: Having these documents safe at hand can reduce hassle for grieving beneficiaries.

Ultimately, an estate plan helps guarantee that your wishes will be followed after you die and designates who will protect those wishes. Another goal of estate planning is to ease tax burdens that your heirs might face when they inherit part or all of your estate. Such planning is especially important if you have children.

Where Is the Safest Place to Store Estate Planning Documents?

Figuring out where to put your estate planning documents is critical. Why? Because you want it to be easy for someone to find them after you die. Wherever you put them, a trusted relative or friend should be made aware of their location.

Potential places for storage of estate planning documents include:

  • Fireproof and waterproof at-home safe.
  • Safe deposit box at a bank. Keep in mind, though, that a surviving loved one or friend might have a hard time retrieving documents stored in your safe deposit box. That's because the bank might require a court order to open the box after you die.
  • Probate court or court administrator's office in your community. This can be done at no charge or a small fee.
  • Office of the attorney who prepared the documents.
  • Online document storage service.

How Do You Store Important Files Digitally?

Thanks to technology, you can store estate planning documents and other important records digitally. Among the options for digital storage:

  • Cloud-based platform like Dropbox, Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive.
  • A portable storage device like a USB drive or external hard drive store in a safe location.
  • Document management system, which is software that stores and organizes your records.

If you decide to store estate planning documents on your computer, be sure to encrypt the files where they're kept. Encryption lets you lock out people who aren't authorized to access the documents. Usually, a special password will be needed to access encrypted files. You'll want to share the password with the executor of your estate. It may be wise to also share it with a trusted loved one or a friend in case your executor cannot carry out their duties.

The Bottom Line

Estate planning can give you peace of mind by specifying how you want your wishes to be carried out after you die, such as who you want to have your assets. But to preserve that peace of mind, you should store your estate planning documents in a safe place. In addition, you should make sure it is known where these documents are stored and how to access them. You won't be able to provide that help after you're gone, and an estate plan does no good if it's lost.