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Disaster-Proofing Your Important Estate Plan Legal Documents



Advanced Preparations Are Necessary When Disaster-Proofing

It is important to make preparations now, so that if and when disaster occurs, your important estate plan legal documents are safe, secure, and accessible to persons who need them. The disaster may be a flood, fire, earthquake, tornado, or hurricane, and possibly on little or no advanced warning. Part of the preparation for such disasters is to disaster-proof your important legal documents. Once the disaster subsides, you will need to have ready access to information and documents to assist in your recovery, clean-up, and restoration. Your advanced preparation will assist you in being able to focus on the safety of your family, as well as safeguarding your property, rather than being concerned with compiling legal documents haphazardly or frantically.

Technology Advances Make Offsite Storage Easier and Multiple Storage Locations Are Prudent

With advances in technology and the ability to store information online and remotely in back-up drives, the process has become easier. There are no set rules of where to keep important legal documents, with the exception of your will. The aim is to have at least two locations for every major legal document, so that you have a back-up available in case one copy is destroyed, damaged, or otherwise becomes inaccessible. To determine where to store information and documents, you need to consider which parties may need access to them, when you might need the materials, and how hard it may be to replace them.

Available Storage Locations

There are half a dozen places where most people choose to store important legal papers. Some are more convenient, prudent, and safe, or more conducive for storage, but there is expense involved.

  • Wallet—This is limited to a small storage space. Identification such as a government-issued identification card or driver's license is usually kept there. Military identification and medical insurance cards are usually stored in wallets, too. Some keep contact information for doctors and prescription information there. It is best not to keep original Social Security cards or valuable family photos in your wallet, as they may become lost, misplaced, or stolen.
  • Safe Deposit Box—This storage space comes with a small annual fee for rent. It is located at a bank or credit union. But for that price, there is a trade-off of a high level of safety and security. The bank vault will survive most, if not all, disasters. Other valuables, such as jewelry, can be kept there. This can be an inconvenient location if you want to have items readily available and it is a night, weekend, or holiday when the bank is closed. It is best to store items in the box that you are not likely to need to access immediately. It is also a good idea to store documents that are difficult to replace there. Your only will copy or original will should not be stored in a safe deposit box because it may be sealed upon your death. A duplicate of your will is appropriate, however.
  • Home Box—Your safe or box at home should be one with a lock that is fire-proof, water-proof, and portable. You should keep items that are originals or copies that you need to have immediate access to in the event of an emergency or disaster. Records that you update on a frequent basis can also be stored there. Items that are bulky or cumbersome for a safe deposit box can be stored there, too. But remember, a safe can be stolen or become inaccessible if something should happen to your house. It is best to use sealable plastic bags for your documents. That way, they will not be damaged by water. Keep keys to your safe deposit box there.
  • Digital/online storage—With modern technology advances, we can store information on back-up hard drives, tape drives, or other electronic devices off-site in multiple safe locations. You can get ready and convenient access to them from multiple sources. They are cheap and convenient forms of storage.
  • Attorney's office—If counsel prepares legal documents for you, they will keep a set of originals in a file or vault at their office or off-site. Be sure to know the document and file retention policy of the firm. Your counsel might be willing to keep a safe deposit key and your funeral or final preparations and instructions.
  • Friend or relative's residence outside your area—It may be a good idea to give copies of documents to a trusted friend or family member outside your area, in case a regional disaster such as a hurricane strikes. You may not have immediate access to documents because of distance and travel involved. Your duplicate safe deposit key may be kept there, as well as instructions as to the location of your home box or safe; lists of contents of home boxes, safes, or safe deposit boxes; and the names and contact information for attorney and executor. Final preparation instructions can be stored with such a person, too.