Aretha Franklin may have done the right thing in writing down her wishes. However, she made a costly mistake resulting in an expensive estate battle over a multimillion-dollar estate, says a recent article from The Washington Post, “Aretha Franklin’s will was in her couch. Here’s where to keep yours.” Having a will is important, but it does you know good if you don’t keep your will safe.
Three of her sons battled in court over handwritten wills, one of which was found under her couch cushions. Another was found in a locked cabinet. Her family was put into a pricey, heart-breaking and public battle by failing to be clear about her final wishes and improperly storing the wills. This is not likely the legacy you want to leave.
If you have a will, keep it in a place where it will be secure and easily found. Don’t put it in your bank’s safe deposit box. The bank will seal the box when it learns of your passing, and your executor may need a copy of the will and a court order to open the box. This will add a layer of delay and stress to administering your will. If this is the only option, you may want to add your executor as an owner of the safe deposit box and make sure they have a copy of the key.
What about keeping your will safe at home? A copy of the will can be kept in a fireproof and waterproof safe. However, be sure that someone else has a duplicate key or combination code. Your executor, personal representative, or another trusted person will need to be able to access the will. The risk here is the possibility of someone intentionally destroying the will, if they are disinherited or think you won’t leave them what they deserve.
Can you leave your will with your estate planning attorney? Creating a duplicate set of original documents, one for you to keep at home and another for your estate planning attorney, is a good option. If you choose this route, make sure the family knows the name of the attorney who has the will. If the practice closes, your heirs may need help tracking down the original will.
In some jurisdictions, you can store your original last will with the court. You give your court a sealed will for a one-time fee. The will can then only be released to you or the person you designate in writing. Remember, the will becomes a public document after you die as part of the probate process.
Wills can also be stored online. However, most states don’t yet recognize electronic wills, so your executor would need to have the originally signed copy, even if you have one stored in the cloud. Remember, no matter how secure a site is, even the Pentagon was hacked. Your will could be compromised in a data breach.
Wherever you store your will, estate planning attorneys often recommend leaving a letter of instruction to serve several purposes, including letting family members know your will exists and where it is stored. Keep your will safe at all costs.
To make things easier for your family during a difficult time, put together a binder and include a letter with a list of important information. The list should include assets, names and contact information for the professionals they’ll need to know, including your estate planning attorney, financial advisor and CPA.
When you update your estate planning documents, which should be done every three to five years, or when there is a trigger event in your life (birth, death, divorce), destroy any old wills. Your estate planning attorney will add a provision saying the new will supersedes any previous versions.
If you don’t have a will, state law will dictate how your property will be distributed, which may not be what you want. Known as dying “intestate,” your assets could go to a relative you haven’t seen in decades or people you don’t know or like. Your children, siblings, or parents may not inherit your property, and fighting will likely occur, especially if significant sums of money are involved.
Having a will and making sure people know where it is doesn’t always ensure that there won’t be a battle over your estate. However, it may prevent a war.
Reference: The Washington Post (July 14, 2023) “Aretha Franklin’s will was in her couch. Here’s where to keep yours.”