Many clients ask about the best place to save their estate planning documents and other critical files. Some also want to protect rare coins, precious jewelry, or other valuables, and they understand that it’s not generally wise to keep them laying around the house. There are a number of available options to consider, but there are some trade-offs to take into account.
None of the information below is designed to frighten you but to give you information so that you can make the best decision given your level of comfort. No one person or institution can guarantee complete security, but we can all make informed choices about what resources we use.
Whatever option you choose, it will be important to share your plan with your family, executor, and/or anyone holding power of attorney. A short set of instructions can be extremely helpful for anyone seeking to fulfill your wishes.
Using a Safe Deposit Box
Safe deposit boxes have long been considered one of the most secure places to keep valuables. Banks certainly have more available security because of the location of safe deposit boxes within a vault along with a two-key system where you and a bank representative must be present to open the box. There are 25 million safe deposit boxes at local bank and credit union offices around the country, and rental prices are generally small depending on the size of the box. In addition to rare and significant items, safe deposit boxes can be a good place to keep important documents that you do not need to access often so that they do not get lost in the shuffle of daily living.
However, despite these benefits, there are a few liabilities to take into account when considering opening a safe deposit box. The security system as a whole is not foolproof, and there have been thefts or mistakes that have led to the loss of valuable items. The New York Times recently featured an article about an expert in rare watches who kept several items in a safe deposit box at a Wells Fargo branch. A neighboring box’s owner had to be evicted, and the bank opened the wrong box. Ultimately, the collector was only able to recoup some of the lost goods as Wells Fargo was unable to find the items in storage.
You might think that the bank would ensure this property against losses of this type, but this is not the case. If you carefully read the lease, you would discover that you, the renter, assume any risk of property you leave in the box. You might receive some value in return, but since there is no provision of federal law that regulates safe deposit boxes, the amount of liability the bank is willing to compensate varies wildly. Wells Fargo caps the bank’s liability at $500.00; Citigroup limits it to 500 times the box’s annual rent; JP Morgan has a $25,000.00 ceiling on what it will pay.
With little obligation to offer restitution, safe deposit boxes are not as safe as we often think. In the Wells Fargo case, the bank’s inventory showed that they were missing several of the watches (one of which had an estimated value of $1 million), but they have continued to withhold any restitution despite years of litigation and appeals.
Most of us are not rare watch collectors, but we all have some important documents that we will want to keep safe. The banks have limited liability on possessions, and they certainly won’t have any liability for documents. In addition, if safe deposit boxes are the only secure place where you are storing important documents, what will happen outside of banking hours? If you face an emergency on a Sunday, it will be difficult to wait until the bank opens on Monday morning to secure any valuable documents. Banks typically seal safe deposit boxes when they receive a death notice, which can make opening them difficult as the bank requires court documents to unseal safe deposit boxes.
None of this information makes safe deposit boxes inherently unsafe or impractical, but we must all be aware that they do not offer the extreme level of security that we once believed they had. They are an option and should be considered alongside other options based on benefits and drawbacks. If you do choose a safe deposit box, consider a joint box with a member of your family or a person holding power of attorney to make the process of opening the box and carrying out your wishes less difficult.
Buying a Home Safe
Buying a home safe is another option that offers the stability of keeping key documents and possessions close by while also providing a level of security. There are several options to choose from with several levels of security available from a simple key lock all the way to biometric scanners. These safes are also fireproof, so they would keep documents and valuables safe and would allow you to focus on the safety of the people in the home in the event of an emergency. Plus, if you need access to important documents for travel frequently, like a passport, keeping it in a home safe can save on the hassle of having to schedule a trip to the bank prior to your departure.
The closeness of the safe is also its greatest liability. All of us can be prone to forgetfulness at times, and putting items in the safe requires an extra step. For example, by October 2020, TSA will soon require a state-issued Real ID for airline travel, and you will be required to bring in proof of citizenship to the license office to receive one of these IDs. Once you get home, it could be easy for something as important as a social security card or an official copy of an original birth certificate to find its way into that stack of “things to be filed later” documents at home and never make it to the safe. While these important documents can be recovered, most of us will want to avoid waiting in line to get new copies. In addition, since many of these safes are portable, they make an easy target for thieves, and their security is not near to the level of what a bank can offer.
If you do choose to keep important items in a home safe, it’s a good idea to make sure that these items return to the safe as soon as possible after you use them. Any items of extremely significant value might be better off at a safe deposit box that offers an extra level of protection.
Keeping Documents on File with an Attorney
Alongside valuables there are several key documents that are important to keep both secure and available for review, including a will, living will, medical directives, and any power of attorney
you’ve given. One of the best places to keep such documents is with your attorney. The attorney that you used to draw up these documents would like to administer your will and settle any of your estate matters, so they have a vested interest in keeping up with your files.
As with any option driven by people, you will want to make sure that you keep up with any changes in the firm including key personnel retiring or anyone with whom you have a point of contact moving away from the firm. In addition, these documents are at risk for fires and other catastrophic events as with any physical location.
Keeping Certain Documents Online
Online storage is an option for legal documents like wills for easy access on cloud platforms. There are companies that offer an option for keeping important documents at one secure place for a small fee. For example, Everplans.com offers tailored suggestions based on a personal assessment, and the company also includes links to state-specific legal forms. You can upload documents to their secure server for $75 per year.
These services provide a relatively secure means for keeping legally binding digital documents online so that you can access them as needed, especially if you are away from where the main copies are stored. While these copies may not be authoritative in all areas, they can make any process much easier as a certified copy of the original document. Your attorney might also keep such documents available online as a part of the service package.
As with any online option, security breaches are a possibility. Internet security has increased, but you should still practice active credit monitoring to make sure your documents have not been accessed. Limiting documents that could be used in identity theft will also keep the repercussions of a security breach to a minimum.
So, What Do I Do?
The most secure option depends on what you value in terms of security and availability. Mistakes at banks and safe deposit box thefts are rare, and these locations continue to be an option for keeping items in a more secure place than the home. Keeping documents on file with an attorney allows for an extra level of security and availability, and you can make sure that your attorney is keeping accurate records. Online storage allows for ease of access for you or anyone hoping to carry out any plans. Home safes offer the opportunity to keep valuables and important documents close by with an extra level of protection than a drawer or a file cabinet.
In reality, there is no completely safe option for your valuables, but the best option for you would be to make an informed choice based on the information above so that you can feel as secure as possible. Whatever you decide, make sure you share this information with your family, executor, person holding power of attorney, and anyone else who will be responsible for carrying out your wishes. Once you settle on a plan for security, write these instructions down and have a conversation with these people to walk them through your process. Taking these steps will help you feel more comfortable about the security of your important documents and will greatly help those you’ve trusted to carry out your plans.
- *Portions of this article were used with permission from Bob Veres
- Sally Abrahms. “3 Great Web Sites for Organizing Estate-Planning Documents.” Kiplinger’s Retirement Report. November 2015
- Stacy Cowley. “Safe Deposit Boxes Aren’t Safe.” New York Times. Jul 19, 2018
- Geoffrey Curran. “Where to Store Your Legal Documents.” Merriman. February 1, 2018
- Jim Gaines. “Real ID comes to Tennessee: New Standards for driver’s licenses.” July 1, 2019. Knox News
- Danielle Klimashousky. “What Is a Safety Deposit Box.” SmartAsset. May 4, 2018