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How to Execute and Store Your Estate Planning Documents

After you've completed all of your estate planning documents, it's important to store them somewhere they'll be safe so they can be executed.

Once you have actual printed estate planning documents in your hands―whether prepared by an attorney or via a self-help medium―here’s what you should do:

Signing Your Estate Planning Documents

1) Read through each document carefully, no matter how painful and boring it may be. Make a note of anything you don’t understand or you think may not be consistent with your plan. Clarify each of these items with your attorney (or do further research if you created the documents yourself) before you sign anything. Repeat: Read and understand your documents before you sign them.

2) Pay attention while signing. Make sure you are signing your own documents (mix-ups are rare but not impossible), that nothing happened when signature copies were being prepared (i.e., confirm that no pages are missing or out of order), and that the documents reflect any last-minute changes you requested. A lot of paper gets passed around the table during in-person execution―from your attorney to you to witnesses to a notary public back to your attorney and ultimately back to you―and it is possible for signature pages to get separated from their intended documents. Before you leave with signed documents in hand, do one final review to make sure that those documents are complete and in order.

Storing and Distributing Your Estate Planning Documents

Once your documents are signed, what should you do with them?

1) Will

Your original Will should be stored with your other important documents. This can be in a safe deposit box (check to make sure the box won’t be sealed at the time of your death; state laws vary), a fireproof safe in your home, or your filing cabinet. Some attorneys offer to hold originals at their offices; this may sound like a good option, but it raises some risks:

– The attorney’s office may close or move without notice to you, leaving your survivors unable to locate your original Will. Let’s say you live twenty or thirty years after your documents are executed. Will your attorney still be in practice?

– Your Will may be lost. A large law firm may have an organized, secure, dedicated storage area for original documents, but many smaller firms don’t. Your original Will may be placed in your file, which may be moved to a “closed files” area of the file room after six months, then to a “permanent storage” area of the file room after five years, then to a third-party offsite storage facility five years later. When you die ten years after that, what are the odds your file will be easily located and retrieved?

If your attorney offers to store your original documents, ask to see where they will be stored and how they will be tracked and protected. If you’re not satisfied, keep them yourself.

Give a copy of your Will to your first named executor if you like, but in general no one else other than your attorney should need a copy.

2) Property power of attorney

Keep your original property power of attorney with your Will and let each named agent know where it’s located. Since a photocopy (usually) has the same legal force as the original, you don’t want numerous copies floating around unnecessarily.

3) Health care directive

Give a copy of the original to each named agent and your primary care physician. Many hospitals will accept a copy to hold on file; if there is a particular hospital you anticipate using, check to see if this is an option.

4) Trust

Give a copy to your trustee and, if they want one, to your accountant and your financial advisor.

Our firm handles estate planning and representation in probate matters throughout the state of New Mexico. You can contact us at (575) 339-2100 and we’ll be happy to discuss your case.