If you’re like most people, your will is one of the most valuable documents you will ever write. It may transfer a vast wealth, or just a few special mementos. Maybe it directs who will raise your children…or who’s going to take care of the dog and the cat. Its greatest value is that it will represent you after you die, direct how your affairs will be put in order and, in part, how you’ll be remembered.
What few people understand is that your will is also the most fragile of legal documents. With wills, courts assume that if your executor can’t present the original, signed paper will, you must have intentionally revoked it. That’s why a copy of the will, even if it’s notarized, isn’t sufficient to get probate.
Not only is this valuable document fragile, but there may be many years or even decades between when a will is written and when it’s needed. A lot can happen in that time. Fire, flooding and pests can damage or destroy a will. Curious family members may be tempted to snoop or tamper with your will. But the greatest threat, by far, is that your will is simply lost. Many of us go through several years of diminishing mental and physical capacity before we die. Often we are ‘down-sized’. It’s so easy for these valuable documents to go missing.
For that reason it’s important to take the time to make sure you are storing your will properly.
How to Keep Your Will Safe:
Law Firm Storage:
If you wrote your will using a lawyer, they may offer complementary will storage. This has traditionally been the safest and least expensive option, but there can be a few issues to watch out for. Lawyers are expected to store your will in a fireproof vault or cabinet in a secured area. This is expensive and carries significant liability, so many lawyers are deciding to stop offering will storage.
If your lawyer is storing your will, confirm they are keeping it in a fireproof vault. If they are in a solo practice or small firm, make sure they use a will storage service. In between the time you write your will and when it’s needed, lawyers may retire or stop practicing. If this happens they generally pass the will on to another firm, but it may be impossible to find after it changes hands a few times. Large firms (>20 lawyers, offices in multiple cities) usually have dedicated storage and can be counted-on to be around for a long time.
Safety Deposit Box:
Storing your will yourself in a safety deposit box can cause significant problems for your executors. This was once a great solution, when banks were a little more personal and knew you and your family members. When you die, most banks now require your executor to produce the original will before they will grant access to your safety deposit box. When that isn’t possible (because the will is in the box), your executor will need a court order, which takes time and money.
This is a great option if you already own a fireproof safe in your home. Many people have these to secure cash or important documents. They can be expensive, so are probably not worthwhile unless you have one for another reason already. Make sure your executor has the combination because, like banks, a locksmith can’t open your safe without the original will proving your executor has the right to access it.
Will Storage Services:
If you don’t have your own fireproof safe, you may want to consider a will storage service. These services specialize in long-term document storage. They are significantly cheaper than buying a fireproof safe or paying for a safety deposit box, and they have processes to make sure your will is only released after you die, and only to the person you’ve identified as the executor.
In Canada, Custodius.ca offers will storage but it requires that the service be purchased through a lawyer. WillKeep.ca offers the safe type of service, but you can register yourself online. Both services allow retrieval of your will through a lawyer, but WillKeep.ca offers the option of naming a “Circle-of-Trust”, a group of people who ensure your will is only released at the right time, to the right person.
Your will is the most valuable document you will ever write, and you have put significant time and effort in to making it. Take the time and effort to be sure your will is there when it’s needed.