Mary and George have been married for the last 50 years. George has managed the financial affairs for the couple throughout their marriage. George has recently been in a serious auto accident that has left him incapacitated. Mary has an appointment scheduled with a new estate planning attorney as she wants his help going over the estate plans the couple currently has and bringing them up-to-date. She is embarrassed to admit this, but she seems to have lost her loved one’s will and other estate documents. These estate planning documents are critical for her to make decisions on George’s behalf, gain access to their accounts, and see how George had planned to distribute his individual property and accounts upon his death. Mary’s daughter is coming to her house to help her look for the estate documents.
Here are a few potential locations they may try:
- A Safe or Lockbox: Many people have a safe, vault, or lockbox in their home where they store important documents. These devices are usually fireproof and waterproof and therefore can withstand events such as fires or tornados that would ruin other storage locations such as desks or closets. Mary searches in their main bedroom, the attic, closets and cabinets, special drawers, and unique compartments in their desks. Mary’s daughter goes through George’s office, sorting through his papers one by one.
- A Safe-Deposit Box: Mary was not aware of having any safe-deposit boxes, but she and George do have a bank at which they keep most of their accounts. Mary contacts the bank to see if there are any safe deposit boxes registered in her and George’s name. In the past, many people used safe deposit boxes for important documents as their provided heightened security. They are also carefully protected and watched by bank security. The added security precautions might be a problem for Mary if George did not provide proper access information or instructions regarding the safe deposit box. If their documents are in a safe deposit box and it is only listed in George’s name, Mary may need to seek a court order granting access. If George placed the safe deposit box in a trust’s name instead, this might alleviate the access problem for Mary.
- With the Drafting attorney: While Mary’s daughter was going through George’s office, she encountered a business card for an estate attorney. Mary contacts the attorney and determines that he did draft their will and estate documents. The estate attorney has a copy of the estate documents as he does for each of his clients. Mary vaguely recalls meeting the estate attorney in the past and signing the papers. She decides to make a follow-up appointment to review their estate plans.
For confidentiality reasons, if a more distant family member or friend contacted the estate attorney and made the same inquiry, the attorney may not have been able to disclose the location of the documents. In that case, the friend or more distant family member may have needed a family member to make the call.
If the attorney does not have hard copies of the estate documents, they may have digital copies. The attorney may also have some suggestions on where the physical copies of the documents may be stored. For example, if George has an agent under a financial power of attorney, that person may have the documents. Financial and medical powers of attorney may have copies of the relevant documents or some insight into where they might be.
What happens if you still cannot find your loved one’s documents?
If you cannot locate the paperwork, you will likely need to start over under the supposition that there weren’t any. You will probably need to go to court and start the guardianship process for mentally incapacitated loved ones. If your loved one has passed, you will likely need to begin the intestacy probate process. Though this process can be lengthy and difficult and does tend to create a higher rate of disputes among loved ones, there really isn’t another option.
If you find yourself in a situation where your estate papers were lost but likely not up-to-date, or at least you are unsure if they are, contact your estate attorney to bring them current and to ensure you fully understand their contents. If you are unable to find the documents, contact your estate attorney to see if they can help with locating them or, if not, restart the process so you have a complete estate plan.