Safeguarding Estate Planning Documents

Clients call this law firm asking for a copy of their will or other estate planning documents because they cannot locate the original all of the time. Our first response is to tell them that if they cannot find the original document, then they do not really have a will. In New York, only a document bearing the original signature of the testator and witnesses can be submitted to probate. While a photocopy or electronic copy of the document may exist, it is not the original and will be rejected by the Surrogate’s Court when seeking to have an estate probated. It is not until the loved person becomes admitted at the hospital under an emergency or that person passes that those left behind start the search for estate planning documents. Another overlooked catastrophic event is damage or loss of estate planning documents after a natural disaster.


Domestic weather events, including nor’easters, tropical storms, and hurricanes often bring a great deal of water to the shorelines and shore communities of New York State. Emergency plans should include provisions for the preservation of estate planning documents. When people are asked or ordered to evacuate their homes, because of emergency weather conditions, they often only leave with the clothes on their backs and their loved ones. Not all temporary shelters for example, allow people to bring their pets with them and many times the pets stay behind. The last thing on peoples’ mind, when evacuating their homes, is collecting and preserving estate planning documents.


What are estate planning documents?

Most standard estate planning documents include the following documents:

  • Will
  • Trust
  • Financial power of attorney, also known as a durable power of attorney
  • Beneficiary designations
  • Health care power of attorney, also known as a living will or advanced directive
  • Guardianship designations
  • Life insurance policies
  • Funeral or death insurance policies


Where should you keep your estate planning documents?

Here are some ways you can safeguard your estate planning documents and ensure they are ready and accessible when, and if, they are needed.


  • Store estate planning documents in a bank safe deposit box.
  • Store estate planning documents in a home safe or vault. If you choose to store your documents at home make sure the cabinet is fire-proof and located in a high position or top floor of your home, to avoid loss of such documents due to water damage or flooding.
  • Give estate planning documents to a loved one, attorney, financial advisor, or other trusted person for safekeeping.


In addition, you might put electronic copies of your estate plan on a disk or flash drive, which can also be stored in a safe deposit box or home safe. It is also a good idea to provide copies of your estate plan to your loved ones and keep copies on cloud or electronic storage repositories like Dropbox or Google Drive.

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