2017 has been a notable year for natural disasters in the U.S. While Hurricane Harvey dumped record rains on Houston and the rest of South Texas and Hurricane Irma walloped the Florida Keys, wildfires continued to smolder in Washington, Oregon, Montana and other parts of the West, at times smothering much of Washington state in a smoky haze. In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, I heard a story on NPR in which a resident of Naples, Florida recounted evacuating in anticipation of the storm and grabbing “all our documents” and everything else they could. As an estate planning attorney, I couldn’t help but wonder, were estate planning documents among those important papers? They should be!
While hurricanes are not a significant threat to those of us living on the northwestern edge of the continental U.S., we are not immune from disaster. (If you haven’t read this New Yorker article from 2015 about the big Cascadia earthquake that scientists predict will happen sometime in the possibly near future, you should!) And, of course, there are run-of-the-mill disasters like falling trees, fire and flooding can seem like they strike at random, can trigger the need to evacuate, and can destroy your home in an instant.
So, what do you take when you have a limited time to grab what is most important and evacuate? After the essentials needed for you, your family and your pets to survive, I would argue that estate planning documents, if they are stored in your home, should be included in the important paperwork you take with you if you need to evacuate. Why? First, should the unthinkable happen to you and the disaster kills you or renders you incapacitated, someone will have the necessary information to contact your fiduciaries. Second, should you make it through the natural disaster unscathed, your home may not be so lucky and, like the many hurricane victims, you may find that everything inside your home has been obliterated.
Preserving your original estate planning documents is important because admitting a copy of a Will to probate or asking a bank to honor a copy of a General Durable Power of Attorney will be far more complicated processes than when an original document is at hand. It still may make sense for you to store your estate planning documents somewhere in your home that is reasonably secure, such as a home safe, fireproof box or sturdy filing cabinet. However, it is important to keep in mind that should disaster strike, the best practice is to take these documents with you if you must evacuate. If you simply can’t do that, and the originals are destroyed, you should contact an estate planning attorney to sign new estate planning documents as part of your rebuilding process.
Photo credit: Mary Cernicek on Flickr