How to Help Keep Documents Safe: 3 Key Steps

Emergencies (by definition) strike without warning; be prepared by having important documents in the right places.

Woman sitting inside a vault with her laptop

Drafting your estate documents — your will, durable power of attorney, and health care directive — is crucial, but once you've done that, where do you store them?

Keep two factors in mind, says Susan Lill, Senior Regional Fiduciary Manager, Wells Fargo Wealth Management: where and who.

First, she asserts, "It's important to keep your documents in a safe place."

Second, she explains, "It's just as important that the individuals who are going to take care of you and your affairs know the location of the original documents."

1. Keep your durable power of attorney and health care directive at home.
Your durable power of attorney and your health care directive are as important as a will, and they should be kept in a place that is both safe and easily accessible in an emergency.

"You want to make sure they're in a fireproof container" — such as a safe or document lock box — "but if you go into a hospital and a life-and-death decision has to be made, someone's got to be able to put their hands on them," Lill says.

Tell a family member or trusted advisor where these documents are and, if they're in a home safe, share the combination or the key's location.

2. Store your original will separately.
Your will can be stored with your attorney or in a safe-deposit box. Make sure your executor — whether that's a person or an institution — knows where the will is kept and where the safe-deposit box key is.

The decision to share copies of your will — or not — is a personal one. "You might not want people to know in advance what's in the will," Lill says.

3. Gather other important documents.
Think about what other information and documents could be important in an emergency. Lill suggests creating two envelopes that are stored safely by accessible by your family or other parties who will be responsible for your care:

"The first envelope would be labeled, 'Open in case I become incompetent and power of attorney goes into effect,'" says Lill.

In that envelope, include the following information:

  • Contact information for doctors, attorneys, and financial advisors
  • A list of your assets, real estate, trust accounts, mutual funds, retirement accounts, and information concerning debts
  • The location of your income tax returns and gift tax returns

"The other envelope would be labeled, 'Open upon my death,'" Lill recommends. In that envelope, include these documents:

  • Your birth certificate and marriage/divorce certificates
  • Real estate deeds and car titles
  • If applicable, adoption papers, veteran's papers (to claim veteran's benefits or veteran's burial), naturalization and citizenship papers
  • Your funeral and burial instructions, along with your cemetery deed and records of any prepayments on funeral arrangements, if applicable
  • A list of the names and contact information for the people you'd like to have notified of your death

No one is eager to contemplate such scenarios, of course, but planning helps ease the burdens on your family and your executor.

Suzanne Bopp is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared at Salon.com and Utne Reader.

Photography by Thinkstock

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Wells Fargo & Company and its affiliates do not provide legal advice. Wells Fargo Advisors does not provide tax or legal advice. Please consult with your tax and legal advisors to determine how this information may impact your own situation.

This information is provided for educational and illustrative purposes only.

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