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Where should I store my original estate planning documents?


I recently had the privilege of talking with Gary Bissig, a staple of Horsham Township. Gary is the Deputy Coordinator of Emergency Management for Horsham Township since 2005, Director of Horsham's Community Police Services Program, and President of Horsham Neighbors Association since 2001. As Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator, Gary is a friendly face in emergency situations in Horsham. From residential fires to large catastrophes, Gary's focus is providing response and recovery assistance for those impacted by an incident. This includes helping them to understand what's happening during the response phase by emergency services agencies, then beginning the recovery phase by addressing housing/safety needs, and arranging for other necessary services to secure the property and mitigate further loss. It goes without saying that Gary knows a little bit about planning for and recovering from bad events. I took the opportunity to ask Gary for his input on a question that comes up often in my office: Where should I store my original estate planning documents?


We both agreed that the best place to store vital documents is in a safe. Our conversation focused on what to consider when purchasing a safe and where to keep your safe.


What are the most important considerations when storing estate planning documents?

Fire, water, safety, and location. The safe should be fire-rated for the specific contents of the box, waterproof, and either secured or heavy enough to protect burglars or pesky hands from removing the safe from your home.


What makes a safe fire-rated?

A fire-rated box is UL or ETL certified. These certified boxes have been tested in real simulations to ensure that the box will survive a fire, and indicate the maximum temperature and duration of protection.


What temperature and duration should I look for when purchasing a fire-rated safe?

Paper can withstand temperatures up to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, while electronic devices such as flash drives, can only withstand temperatures up to 125 degrees Fahrenheit. With that being said, you should consider the contents of the box and look for boxes that are rated for the appropriate temperature. As for duration, that one is tricky. While the fire department's response time is quick, they cannot respond until they know the fire is happening. In the case of a house fire when you are home, an hour rating or less is probably fine. However, if you're on vacation, live in a remote area, or the fire starts at nighttime while you're sleeping, more time may go by before the fire department is notified. Unfortunately, we can't predict those circumstances.


Where should I keep my safe?

Assuming your safe is fire-rated and waterproof, the best place to store the safe is either in the basement/lowest level of the house or exterior wall. If it's not waterproof, the lowest level will better protect the contents from fire, but likely not from water damage due to flooding or standing water from putting out a fire. In addition, fire-rated safes tend to be heavy. The heaviness of the safe is probably a good thing when considering burglary, pesky hands, or intrusive relatives. If the safe isn't heavy and could easily be carried away, you should consider securing it to the floor.


Are there any other options?

These fire-rated, waterproof safes can be expensive. It's worth considering what these safes provide compared to cheaper alternatives - protection from fire, water, and pesky hands. While this is the best option, another "something is better than nothing" option is to put your documents into a UL-certified fire-rated document bag (approx. $20) rated for 350 degrees or higher and then put the document bag into your standard fire-proof (not fire-rated) safe. A standard filing cabinet is not sufficient. The filing cabinet may survive a fire or flood, but the contents likely will not.


What about a safe deposit box at the bank?

Though these boxes are a great option from a fire, water and safety perspective, the box is typically held by just the client. In most cases, I advise my clients not to put the originals of their essential documents in their safe deposit box at the bank. In the event that the Agent under Power of Attorney or executor under the Will needs to access these documents, there are unnecessary hurdles to get through in order to obtain the documents. In some cases, the Agent or Executor does not know that the documents are in the box in the first place, or he may not know the box number or be able to locate the key to the box.


If the documents are in the safe deposit box, the executor is entitled to a Will search upon presentation of the death certificate. However, if there are other contents in the box, the executor must file a "Notice of Intent to Enter Safe Deposit Box" and follow the procedures set forth by the Commonwealth before entering to inspect and/or remove those contents.


Final thoughts


Your estate attorney may choose to retain your original documents, either because this is the firm's standard practice or because you determine your documents are safer in their possession than in your home. However, in most cases, the client retains their original documents at home.


While a fire-rated, waterproof safe can be heavy and expensive, the security of your vital documents is extremely important. These documents are originals and cannot be replaced. Once again, the safe should be fire-rated for the specific contents of the box, waterproof, either secured or heavy enough to protect burglars or pesky hands from removing the safe from your home, and on the lowest level or an exterior wall. We are not able to endorse or recommend any specific brands or products, but trust that this information will help you in choosing the proper safe.


If you don't have these vital documents, now is the time to start thinking about estate planning. We are happy to schedule an initial consultation with you or you can schedule online at bartonestatelaw.com/appointment.

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