Where Should I Keep My Estate Planning Documents?

Esther was 78-years-old when she passed away peacefully in her sleep.  She was a widow and the mother of four children.  Esther had always been a very private person who shared very little with her children about her finances, her end of life wishes, her funeral and burial wishes, and her estate plan.  Two years prior to her death, Esther hired an estate planning attorney who prepared a comprehensive estate plan which included a last will and testament, health and financial powers of attorney, anatomical gift directive, cremation directive, and detailed instructions and documents for her funeral.  Esther even wrote out her own obituary.

Unfortunately, Esther never shared any of this information with her children.  She did not keep copies of her estate planning documents in her home.  Esther placed all of her documents in a safe deposit box which was titled just in her name.  She didn’t even tell her children that she had created an estate plan.

After her passing, Esther’s children made arrangements for their mother’s funeral and burial.  It was two weeks after Esther’s funeral that the children first learned of the safe deposit box.  After some difficulties getting access to the box, the children found Esther’s estate plan and were shocked to find the anatomical gift directive, cremation authorization, funeral wishes, and the obituary.  They were overcome with guilt knowing that their mother’s anatomical gift instructions and her cremation instructions were not followed, and that her funeral was quite different from what she wanted.  Even the obituary they wrote was very different from the one written by Esther.

My purpose with sharing this true story is to illustrate the importance of sharing information with loved ones and keeping estate planning documents in an accessible place.  Many would say Esther was very fortunate to have died peacefully in her sleep.  In the event, however, that Esther was in the hospital, in a terminal condition, and unable to communicate with the doctors, her children would not have known their mother had an advance health care directive which provided her end-of-life decisions.

At Pregenzer, Baysinger, Wideman & Sale, PC, we suggest keeping your estate planning documents in one of the following places:

  • Safe at home, labeled clearly
  • With your estate planning attorney, if they maintain original documents
  • In your safe deposit box only if there is a second signer or the box is held by your trust

As difficult as it may be, have the discussion with your loved ones about your end-of-life wishes, your preference of cremation or burial, your funeral wishes, the location of your estate planning documents, and the name of your estate planning attorney.  Provide copies of your advance health care directive to your loved ones, particularly to the individual you have named as your decision-maker.  Tell the individuals you have named as your personal representative and/or trustee, so they know to step into action upon your incapacity and/or death.  Do not keep your estate planning documents in a safe deposit box unless that box is titled in the name of your trust or jointly with at least one other person.  Keeping all of this information private may have unintended consequences.  In Esther’s situation, her privacy prevented her final wishes from being fulfilled.