Your family can’t honor your last wishes if they can’t find your will.
When Aretha Franklin died last August, her family reported that she didn’t leave a will. Since then, they’ve been working to settle her extensive estate without any guidance from the Queen of Soul on what she wanted done with her assets.
Nine months later, her family was shocked to find not one but three versions of Franklin’s will hidden in her home, the Associated Press reports. Two were in a locked cabinet that remained a mystery until Franklin’s niece found its key earlier this month. The third was under the cushions of a couch.
Finding a single will probably would have been a lot less complicated for the family than finding three, but it’s likely that lawyers will be able to settle on the most valid version. That could be the most recent version — the one found in the couch — but it’s less official than the older ones. It’s handwritten, with some words scribbled out and others added in the margins, more like a rough draft than a final document.
Now that Franklin’s wills have been found, there’s turmoil ahead for her family as they shift gears from trying to distribute her estate without a will. It’s a good thing that she did write one (and even though this situation is complicated, it’s better that she wrote three versions than none at all), but it would have been better if her family had known the will existed before they started the complicated process of settling her intestate affairs.
But even knowing the will existed wouldn’t have done the family much good if they still didn’t know where to find it. Had Franklin shared the will’s location with her family, they could have saved months of legal wrangling. Here are five places that would have been better choices for will storage than a couch and a locked cabinet with a hidden key:
1. Your attorney’s office.
It’s a great idea to have your attorney keep a copy of your will and other final documents. In the event that the family can’t easily find your will after your death, your attorney will probably be the first phone call they make. If the necessary documents are right there in your file, things will be so much easier for your family. But it’s worth having a second copy somewhere else, just in case. Read on for suggestions on where to store a second copy.
2. A safe deposit box.
It’s pretty common to store a will in a safe deposit box at a bank. This is certainly a secure location. But it might be too secure. Your assets might be frozen upon your death, leaving your family unable to access your safe deposit box, or they might require a court order to get to it. If you’re thinking of storing your will here, it’s best to add a joint owner to the safe deposit box, such as your spouse or child. If it’s in two names, that other person will be able to access it without the legal wrangling they’d be up against otherwise.
3. A fireproof, waterproof safe at home.
If you have a home safe that’s fireproof and waterproof, you’ve got a secure location for your will. It won’t be lost even if disaster strikes your home. But don’t do what Franklin did and hide the key or combination. Make sure your trusted family members can get into the safe, and keep them up to date any time you change the combination.
4. A zipper bag in the freezer.
The low-tech version of a fireproof, waterproof safe is a zipped plastic bag in your fridge’s freezer. A freezer will typically survive a fire, and the zipped bag will keep moisture out. This isn’t typically the top recommendation of estate attorneys, but it does the trick if you don’t have a safe or a safe deposit box.
5. Your filing cabinet.
It’ll be very easy to access your will if you store it in your filing cabinet. However, this option is not as damage-proof as the others above. If you choose to store your will in your filing cabinet, it’s a good idea to make sure there’s at least one copy stored somewhere else, like your attorney’s office, just in case of flood or fire at your home.
If you don’t like any of these ideas and you really think it would be better to store your will under your couch cushions, that’s okay — as long as you tell someone that’s where it is. That’s the most important thing when it comes to your will. Your survivors need to be able to access your will easily, so they can carry out your final wishes just as you want, and with a minimum of stress.
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