What If I Can’t Find My Loved One’s Documents?

If a loved one has recently died or become incapacitated and unable to manage their affairs, finding the person’s estate planning documents is essential. The estate planning documents are critical to making decisions on the loved one’s behalf, gaining access to accounts, and discovering your deceased loved one’s wishes regarding how to distribute their money and assets. A properly prepared estate plan grants significant legal power to help you handle these vital tasks. However, despite the importance of the estate planning documents, it is not uncommon for people to move them or fail to communicate exactly where they are.

If you are trying to find documents on your own, here are a few suggestions for where to search.

1. A safe or lockbox in the home. A common location for estate planning documents is a personal safe, vault, or lockbox. These types of containers are often chosen because they provide some protection from fire, water, and curious eyes. It is not unusual for estate planning attorneys to advise clients to keep important documents safe in one of these containers. If you are looking for a lockbox, search the places in the home where your loved one would most probably keep private documents, such as a bedroom, attic, cabinets, special drawers, unique compartments or home office.

2. With the drafting attorney. Some attorneys hold originals or copies of their client’s estate planning documents. To find the attorney who drafted the documents, search your loved one’s belongings for the lawyer’s business card or any correspondence from the attorney. Contact the attorney and ask about the documents you are looking for. The attorney who drafted the documents may have the completed work or signed copies. For confidentiality reasons, the attorney may not always be able to release information to you if you are not related to your loved one or named as a fiduciary (trustee, executor, or personal representative) in the documents. If the attorney does not have the physical copy, a digital copy may be available. The attorney may be able to direct you to the person or organization designated as helper or decision maker (personal representative, successor trustee, agent under a financial power of attorney, or agent under a healthcare power of attorney), who may hold the original or copies of a particular document.

3. In a safe-deposit box. At one time, it was standard practice for people to keep valuables and essential in a safe-deposit box at a bank. A bank safe-deposit box provides heightened security and care, but that heightened security may pose a challenge if your loved one did not provide proper access or instructions regarding the box. In some cases, it is necessary to obtain a court order granting access. If the safe deposit box is titled in a trust’s name, it may be easier to gain access.

What happens if you still cannot find the estate planning documents?

If you still cannot find the estate planning documents, you will probably have to proceed as though there were none. For mentally incapacitated loved ones, you will probably have to go to court and start the guardianship process. If your loved one has died, you will have to begin an intestacy probate process. The probate process can be long and arduous, but will be necessary if no estate planning documents are found.

If you find yourself in a situation where you are trying to find estate planning documents, you do not need to handle it alone. We can assist you with searching for lost documents and navigating situations where friends and family cannot find essential documents. Call our office to schedule a virtual or in-person meeting to discuss how we can help you.