How Do I Store Estate Planning Documents?

It’s a common series of events: an elderly parent is rushed to the hospital and once children are notified, the frantic search for the estate planning documents starts. It’s easily avoided with planning and communication, according to an article from The News-Enterprise titled “Give thought to storing your estate papers.” However, just because the solution is simple doesn’t mean most people address it.

As a general rule, estate planning documents should be kept together in a fire and waterproof container in a location known to and accessible by fiduciaries, and copies of some documents should be given to the fiduciaries in advance.

Most people think of bank safety deposit boxes for storage. However, it’s not a good location for several reasons. Individuals may not have access to the contents of the safe deposit box unless they are named on the account. Often a court process is necessary for permission to open a safety deposit box if no one is named on the account.

Even with their names on the account, emergencies don’t follow bankers’ hours and access may be difficult. Further, what if the Power of Attorney giving the person the ability to access the safe deposit box is inside the safe deposit box or the principal has died and the Will is in the box.   Bank officials are not likely to be willing to open the box to an unknown person and proof of that person’s authority is in the box.  This is like locking the key in the safe.

Even further, COVID and the economy have led many banks to close or not offer safety deposit boxes.  Banks don’t want to maintain as many brick and mortar locations, so that means safety deposit boxes have to go.

When you store estate planning documents, a well-organized binder of documents in a fire and waterproof container at home makes the most sense.

Certain documents should be given in advance to certain organizations or individuals.  For instance, health care documents, like a Medical Power of Attorney, Directive to Physicians (Living Will) and HIPAA authorizations, may be given to your agents, as well as to your primary care physician or to the medical facility if you go in for a procedure.  This way, agents have the necessary documentation should an emergency occur, and medical systems can add the documents to their file for you.  This way everyone (especially medical providers) are on the same page about your wishes and who will speak on your behalf.

Mary touched on other items that shouldn’t be kept in a safety deposit box in this article.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/things-you-should-not-keep-in-your-safe-deposit-box/  

Financial Powers of Attorney should be given to each financial institution or agency in preparation for use, close in time to when you expect to need it.

This may feel onerous, however, imagine the same hours spent communicating with banks plus the immense stress if the need to use it is time sensitive. Banks often want to review POA’s in advance of their use before accepting them, and that may take several weeks.

If your estate plan includes a trust, you’ll want your trustees’ to have a copy when you are ready to give it to them, and the original can be kept safe with your documents.

Wills are treated differently than POA documents. Wills are usually kept at home and not filed anywhere until after death.

Also, with all documents, especially the Will, it is important to track and keep safe the originals.  You may sometimes be able to probate copies of Wills, but it’s better to keep the original secure and avoid the need to probate a copy.  This is less critical for other documents, but the same policy holds.

Having estate planning documents properly prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney is the first step. Step two is ensuring they are safely and properly stored, so they are ready for use when needed.

Reference: The Times-Enterprise (June 11, 2022) “Give thought to storing your estate papers”

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Funeral Planning: Not a Festive Thought, But A Kind One

Funeral planning as part of your estate plan provides clear, final wishes, names a person to execute them and helps your family cope at a difficult time.

No one wants to do funeral planning, but leaving instructions for your funeral and burial wishes relieves loved ones of the burden of making decisions and hoping they are following your wishes. In addition, says the article “Important to provide instructions for preferred funeral, burial wishes” from The Leader, it also prevents arguments between relatives and friends who have their own opinions about what they think you may have wanted.

What often happens is that people make their funeral plan and final wishes part of their estate plan.  In some states, burial wishes are found in a will.  However, this often presents a problem as the will is usually not looked at until after the funeral. If your loved ones don’t know where your will is, then they certainly won’t know what your wishes were for the funeral.  Without clear written directions, spiritual practices or cultural traditions that are important to you, may not be followed.

An estate planning attorney can help you create a document that outlines your wishes and will have suggestions for how to discuss this with your family and where it should be located.  In Texas, much like in New York as referenced in the article, there is a form that allows you to name an agent who will be in charge of your remains.  In Texas it is called the Appointment for Disposition of Remains.  You can give your instructions to that person in the document which takes the mystery and a lot of the difficulty out of the process.

In Texas, if you don’t name a person to control the disposition of remains, there is an order of priority for decision makers, including spouses, a child, a parent and so on.  If you wouldn’t want those individuals making these decisions, an Appointment for Disposition of Remains is essential.

For funeral planning, one option is to go to the funeral home and arrange to pay for the funeral and go to the cemetery and purchase a plot. In Texas, a pre-need, pre-paid irrevocable burial plan may also be excluded from Medicaid for long-term care purposes.  See here for more on that topic.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/elder-law-questions/

Some people wish to donate their organs, which can be done on a driver’s license or in another statement. This should also be authorized on you Medical Power of Attorney so that your agent has the authority to do so.  Donating your body for medical research or education will require researching medical schools or other institutions and may require an application and other paperwork that confirms your intent to donate your body. When you pass, your family member or whoever is in charge will need to contact the organization and arrange for transport of your remains.

A comprehensive estate plan does more than distribute assets at death. It also includes what a person’s wishes are for their funeral and burial wishes. Think of it as a gift to loved ones.

Reference: The Leader (December 7, 2019) “Important to provide instructions for preferred funeral, burial wishes”

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Estate Planning Without Children: Issues to Consider

Planning without kids
Estate planning without children is just as important, if not more important, then estate planning for couples who do have kids.

Estate planning without kids is very important and raises unique issues to address.  If you and your spouse don’t have children, the focus of your financial legacy may be quite different from what it would be if you were parents.  In fact, due to changing demographics, families often have less children than before or no children.  However, couples often ignore planning as they think they do not need to plan without kids.

Motley Fool’s article, “5 Estate-Planning Tips for Child-Free Couples,” suggests that you may want to leave some of your money to friends, family members, charitable organizations, or your college. No matter the beneficiaries you choose, these estate planning tips are vital for couples without children.

  1. A will. You need a will because couples without children don’t have natural heirs to inherit their wealth. If you die without a will, your assets also may not go to your spouse. The state intestacy laws determine which of your family members inherit from you, especially if neither of you have wills. The family of the first spouse to die may be disinherited.  All of this can be eliminated by having a will directing your inheritance to beneficiaries of your choosing.
  2. A power of attorney. Who will make financial decisions for you, if you and your spouse become incapacitated? You can select a person to do this with a power of attorney (POA). You can name a person to pay bills, manage your investments and handle property matters, if you’re unable to do so yourself.  Failing to do so may require an expensive guardianship.  You also very much need medical powers of attorney so that someone you know can make medical decisions for you if you and your spouse cannot.
  3. Up-to-date beneficiaries. If you have retirement accounts or life insurance policies, the distribution of the proceeds at your death is made by a beneficiary designation, not by your will. A frequent beneficiary error is not keeping those designations current.
  4. Give money to charity now. You may think about leaving your assets to organizations that have enriched your life. You can set up a trust to be sure that your money goes where you want. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to accomplish this.
  5. Remember the pets. If you have furry children, plan for their care when you’re not around to tend to them yourself. You can also put money into a trust specifically intended for the animal’s care or designate an organization that will provide lifetime care for your pet with money you earmark to that purpose as well as name a caretaker to care of the pet after you are both gone.

Remember that estate planning without children is needed just as much as planning for couples with children, and maybe even more.  Considering these issues will help ensure you are protecting in your own estate plan and your inheritance goes to the beneficiaries you choose.

Reference: Motley Fool (September 9, 2019) “5 Estate-Planning Tips for Child-Free Couples”

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