Colorado is free from many of the natural disasters that plague other states. It’s pretty hard for a hurricane to hit our land-locked area, and we’re a fairly low flood-risk state. However, the natural disasters we do get – especially tornadoes and wildfires – tend to hit relatively hard. This year alone there have been more than 25 wildfires, and state officials have predicted that 2018 could be the nastiest wildfire season since the painful seasons of 2012 and 2013.
“It appears that this will probably be the worst one, forecast-wise, in quite some time,” said Mike Morgan, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. “Abnormally dry weather and a dry winter has left our mountains nearly barren.”
With this threat of fire looming, it is essential that you have a good plan for securing your critical legal documents. When it comes to storing your estate plan paperwork, there are two essential issues to keep in mind. First, these are legal documents and the originals need to be kept safe. Second, you and your executors must be able to easily access these documents in the case of an emergency or your death. So, where is the best location to place your papers so they are both secure and accessible?
“First, I recommend that your executor has a copy of these documents. At least you or they have a starting place should something happen to you in an emergency situation, especially in the case of medical powers of attorney or advanced care directives or living wills. In a medical emergency, your medical decision maker may not have the time to get the originals. Some institutions may still require originals, but you can at least get some of your authority established though those copies,” said Jessica Showers, attorney at the Hammond Law Group, which practices only estate planning and elder law.
“As for the originals, we generally recommend to clients that they maintain them at their home in a fire-proof safe or locked cabinet. Something that is secure but also protective in case of a natural disaster, especially living in Colorado and how dry it is and the forest fires we deal with.”
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However, even though fireproof safes do a very good job protecting their contents, nothing is 100 percent fireproof, and the longer a fire lasts the more opportunity there will be for the contents to become damaged. If your home should get swept up in a wildfire, likely the contents of even a fire-proof safe won’t survive.
“A number of our clients lost their homes in the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires of 2012 and 2013. Because they had their documents organized, all of our clients who were given time to evacuate were able to leave home with their important documents,” said Showers. “Their fireproof safes provided one easy place to retrieve documents as they hurriedly packed precious belongings on their way out the door to safety.
“However, we don’t always have a chance to evacuate. If you have your documents in a safe but they are destroyed anyway, the recommendation at that point is to re-execute your documents so you have a new set of originals. It’s still the same content but with a new signing date and signature in blue ink. And this can be done with the attorney with whom you worked with before.
“In the event that the originals and the person who created them all perished in the fire – assuming that the executor had a copy of the documents – then a court proceeding would most likely be held to determine if that copy is sufficient enough for the court to follow as the decedent’s last wishes.”
Another idea is to keep the original estate planning documents in a safe deposit box at your bank. However, these can be thick documents and may prove too big for a standard safe deposit box. In this instance, you may just keep the original signature pages in the box.
“A safe deposit box is a good option. However, I always caution my clients to know what your executor needs to get into the safe deposit box,” said Showers. “Most banks will not allow access to another person – even if they have the key – unless they are somehow associated with the box. That’s a safety reason for them and also probably a liability reason. You want to make sure that your executor’s information is on record with the bank.”
With the abundance of cloud storage options, it may seem like these are a convenient way to store sensitive documents – especially potentially bulky ones. However, according to Showers, while these solutions – like Docubank, Carbonite, or even Dropbox – may be a good way to give your executors a copy, you still need to find a way to secure the originals.
“Most states still require the original hard paper copies signed with blue ink, so it is clear that it is the original. We have to have the hard copies to be filed in the court,” said Showers.
“Additionally, I can’t stress enough that whoever is going to be following your wishes needs to be able to get to these documents. So, if you are maintaining your documents through a cloud account, that digital platform is being monitored by a company with their own federal rules and requirements. They can’t let just anybody into that account. Make sure that you know what your executor needs to get access.”
Of course, the first step is having the documents to secure. If you are ready to set up your estate planning documents, The Hammond Law Group is ready to help. To discover more visit their “Get Educated” page.