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By: Cava and Faulkner

How Long Must Lawyers Keep Original Wills?

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A person’s will is a vital document that has the power to distribute their estate according to their wishes rather than the wants of others around them. Because it’s such a valuable document, having more than one copy of it is a good idea. Asking your attorney to keep a copy is recommended. Read on to learn more.

Do Lawyers Keep Original Copies of Wills?

Lawyers must keep original wills if their clients ask them to and the lawyer agrees. In some cases, an attorney may charge a small fee to do so, although not all do. Suppose they’ve agreed to keep the will. In that case, California law stipulates that they must keep the documents in a safe, vault, safe deposit box, or another secure place where “it will be reasonably protected against loss or destruction.”

How Long Should My Attorney Keep My Original Will in California?

Who should keep the original will? California law doesn’t specify an exact timeline, meaning attorneys could be expected to keep the documents indefinitely. In the age of paper, that could mean trying to store hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pages of documents in conditions that would keep them safe from fire, water, or other types of damage.

However, some California bar associations have created guidance for their members which, while not binding, can set expectations. If an attorney wants to destroy documents, ethically, they need to make every effort to reach the client and allow them to take them rather than have the lawyer destroy them. Lawyers are also advised not to destroy any documents that could still be pertinent in future court cases, such as the will of someone not yet deceased.

Couldn’t I Just Keep My Will in My Safe Deposit Box at the Bank?

You can, but it can slow the process of accessing the will for your inheritors. If you jointly own the safe deposit box with another person, the other person can immediately access it. If your name is the only one on the account, but someone has the key, that person would need to provide the key, a copy of the deceased’s death certificate, and proof of the access seeker’s identity.

Another possibility is that a personal representative (or executor) or trustee of the estate can access the safe deposit box if they have copies of the estate planning documents that show they’ve officially been designated in those capacities. That can be harder to do if the only copy of the will is in the safe deposit box.

What if My Attorney Dies Before I Do?

This is something that’s important to discuss upfront with your estate planning attorney before it can happen. Your lawyer should have plans for record retention and notification, whether operating as a single attorney in their privately owned office or one of many in a large law firm. They may have already designated another attorney to handle their records on their death or in larger firms, which other team members will handle it.

Your attorney should be able to detail those kinds of plans for you. However, there’s something important you need to consider long-term: Keeping your attorney up to date with current addresses and methods of communication. Sometimes people have few legal needs once they’ve drawn up a will. But if they move and the lawyer can’t find them–or equally importantly, the family can’t find the name of the lawyer–the estate could go to, and the court could determine distribution rather than the will guiding them.

Can I Do a Digital Will?

While seemingly everything can be done online today, California (and many other states) does not recognize a digital will as valid. Wills must be papers signed by the estate owner and witnessed in person, then notarized. Is this going to change? It’s likely to happen someday. But currently, paper wills are the only wills accepted in California. That also means that video or audio recordings of wills are not considered valid.

Where Are Good Places to Safely Store Wills?

There are many, and having more than one copy is a good idea so they’re not hard to access. Your attorney is an excellent start, as they’re experienced in safe and secure document retention. A safe deposit is a good backup. If you want to store one copy in your home, consider purchasing a fire- and waterproof safe to lock it up in.

Wherever you decide to store your will, it’s crucial that others know the locations. That includes your spouse or partner if you have one, the executor of the will, and the will’s beneficiaries.

Who Should Be Named Executor?

Many people choose their spouse, and that can work well. But the key factor in designating an executor is trust. Will that person carry out the will according to your wishes? It’s also good to find someone detail-oriented and preferably local, as they may need to appear in court or visit the estate’s physical properties.

What Should I Do if I Want to Begin Developing My Will?

Call Cava & Faulkner at 916-685-1225 for a free consultation. Our team of experienced, knowledgeable estate planning attorneys can guide you through the process, whether it’s a simple will or a highly complex one. We can ensure that your wishes are clarified and detailed so they can effectively go through as you want. We can also help determine the best person or persons to be the executor. Call us today for more information about developing your will.