What to do with all those documents you just signed?

Written by Jim Worthington on April 6, 2022

Congratulations! You’ve just spent time and money working on your will, power of attorney, health care directive, and maybe even a trust. You wrestled with who to name to take charge of your affairs while you’re alive if you can’t do so yourself, who should make important health care decisions for you, and who will carry out your wishes after you pass. They were tough decisions, but you made them and signed all the legal documents putting that plan into place. What should you do with the documents that express those wishes?

Keep the originals in a safe place.

The best place is a safe in your own home. I’ve joked that I’ve given this advice so often I should sell safes. Make sure a family member knows where the key or combination is. You’ll want them to be able to get into it if you can’t.

A bank’s safe deposit box is not a bad place, but depending on your bank’s hours, a branch could be closed from 4 p.m. Friday to 9 a.m. Tuesday when Monday is a holiday. That’s a long time for you or your family to have to wait. And a family member may not even be able to get into your safe deposit box without going to court first. Safe deposit boxes are fantastic places to keep valuables for which you have lots of lead time before you need them. Precious jewelry you rarely wear or gold coins come to mind. They’re not great places for documents that may be needed in an emergency.

Should you give copies to the people you’ve named?

You probably should give copies of your health care documents to your health care surrogate. The people you name to make those decisions may not have time to look through your home for them. You may even choose to give a copy to your health care providers.

The advice is different for financial documents, including the power of attorney (POA), will, and trusts.

I don’t recommend giving copies of the POA and will to your family and to the people you’ve named as agent under your POA or personal representative under your will. You may change your mind about who is best to serve in various roles. You may change your mind about who to leave what to. If you do that, you’ll want to destroy the older versions. Having copies of those older versions alongside copies of the new version can only lead to confusion. Instead, let your family and the persons you’ve appointed know where to find the originals—considering the advice to give them the combination for your safe.

If you have a trust, you should generally give a copy to the successor trustee. But the recommendation there is going to be tailored to the situation. If the trust is funded, it makes sense for the next trustee in line to serve to have a copy. He or she may need to act quickly if you’re not able to. However, if the trustee is one of the beneficiaries, knowing what to do will depend on understanding the circumstances, such as if the trustee has been funded. This article has information about funding a trust.

What to do with the old versions?

As the last section mentioned, you may make changes to your documents over time. You should destroy the originals and all copies of the old versions. It’s okay if your lawyer keeps copies in their file. But you should make it easy on your family members and only keep the current documents that are in effect. The reason why is one of those that is so obvious that it can be overlooked:  When you need those documents, you likely won’t be physically able to help them find the current one and figure out which version is the latest one. Make it easy for your family to find the documents during a stressful time. The whole point of the planning you did is to make it easier for your family; this will be a great step in that direction.