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.”
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 Ms. Aretha 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 (fireproof and waterproof) and easily found. Do not 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 a co-owner of the safe deposit box and make sure they have a key.
What about keeping the Will at home? As mentioned, your Will should be kept in a fireproof and waterproof safe or box. However, be sure that a trusted individual has a duplicate key or combination code. Your Executor 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 believe you may not leave them what they deserve. So, be sure that only a most trusted individual or individuals know where your original Will is being kept.
Can you leave your original Will with your estate planning attorney while retaining a copy at home? This may be a good option. If you choose this route, make sure the family knows the name of the attorney who has the Will. The downside is that, if the law practice closes, your heirs may need help tracking down the original Will.
In some jurisdictions, you can store your original 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. This is not an option in Berks County, Pennsylvania, however.
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.
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 will need to know, including your estate planning attorney, financial advisor and CPA. At Curran Estate & Elder Law in Berks County, Pennsylvania, we prepare a binder for you with your original Will and any accompanying originals, such as a Durable Financial Power of Attorney, a Healthcare Power of Attorney, and an Advance Directive/Living Will.
When you update your estate planning documents, which should be done every three to five years, or when there is a triggering event in your life (birth, death, divorce), destroy any previous Wills. Your estate planning attorney will add a provision saying the new Will revokes and supersedes any previous versions, but it is best to destroy any previous Wills to alleviate any confusion upon death.
If you don’t have a Will, your resident 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 the way you believe they should, 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 is your best option for ensuring your wishes are met with the distribution of your assets.
Reference: The Washington Post (July 14, 2023) “Aretha Franklin’s will was in her couch. Here’s where to keep yours.”
Free E-Newsletter – Subscribe Now