How to Organize Important Papers

How to Organize Important Papers As an attorney that practices in estate planning and probate, this is a topic that I discuss frequently.  I help people when they are planning for their estate as well as the children who are administering their parents’ estate and trying to locate the important papers that contain the information they need. The internet and paperless revolution has made the process more difficult to know that important information is sometimes never printed on paper.  While working in my father’s law firm during college in the early 2000s, I became aware of this problem when we received a call from a person whose parents had passed away and they wanted to know how they were to determine what their parents owned and where they were banking at. The child had found a copy of their parents’ trust that was twenty years old, but there was no information about their current accounts. The first time I received this call as a young law clerk, I consulted with the paralegals and attorneys about how I should advise this caller. The answer, or lack of an answer, was something that I will always remember.  They recommended that they look around the house for bank statements and to see what comes in the mail.  Like the caller, I thought the attorneys and paralegals would have a better answer.  This was a bad answer in the early 2000s as people were already starting to use email to receive bank statements and important information, and it was even worse in 2009 when I became a lawyer and was still receiving this same call regularly.  The only solution I had for this problem was counseling my clients to leave information about their accounts and providing an easy way for them to place current financial statements together with their Trust and Estate Planning documents.  In 2016, a law was passed that gave people control of the information that is stored on their behalf electronically and defined this information to be a “digital asset”. The laws I am referring to are known as the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Asset Act (RUFADAA), which became law in Arizona in 2016, California in 2017, and later in most states.

How to Organize Important PapersHere is how modern estate plans work to include your important information.  We give the general power for the people you name to manage your plan to request an inventory of your digital assets limited to the type of account, owner of the account, amount in the account, and beneficiaries named.  This allows the people in your estate plan to be able to access your important information.  We have created a Digital Asset Trust to give more specific instructions to the trustee for email and other electronic accounts.  For email, we recommend giving the trustee the ability to request a list of emails from the last twelve months.  The list does not include the content of the messages and is only the name of the sender.  This allows a successor trustee to search for accounts and liabilities of the deceased while also preserving privacy.  Even if you are comfortable sharing your password with others, this is in violation of most terms of service agreements and most accounts end upon death.  If you are storing photos, videos, or other important data that you want to last beyond your life, this can also be designated in a Digital Asset Trust.

If you are storing something electronically and want it to be preserved after you are gone, first check to see if the account provides a way for you to transfer the account.  RUFADAA calls this an “Online Tool” and on Facebook they call it “Legacy Settings”.  If an account provides an online tool, this will have the highest priority.  For accounts that lack an adequate online tool, a Digital Asset Trust can be used to give clear instructions.  Google has “inactivity settings” that can be used to control what happens to your account after a period of inactivity. Since my oldest child is fourteen, this is not an adequate option for me to transfer the videos and data so I gave instructions for these accounts to be copied to my children which could be carried out by my trustee.

How to Organize Important PapersHere is what I have done to store my important information.  I have a safe deposit box that is owned by my revocable trust where I am the current trustee. If I resign as trustee, the successor trustee would have access to this box.  I have placed the address of the bank along with a key to the box with the original copy of my trust and estate plan.  I keep my estate plan on my desk as I am often showing it to people as an estate planning attorney.  In the safety deposit box, I have the master password to my password keeper as well as the master key to my cryptocurrency holding.  My loved ones know where to find my estate plan and the master password would allow my trustee to access my accounts.  I have a Digital Asset Trust that instructs Apple to provide a copy of all photos, videos, and data to my children.  I also provide instructions for Google Drive, Dropbox, and YouTube contents to be copied for my children.

In the last estate planning meeting after we have discussed the importance of keeping updated financial information together with the estate planning documents, people will ask where they should keep this information. I tell them to keep it in a safe place where the people who need to find it can access it.  This might mean providing a copy now, giving your successor trustees and family members the name of the lawyer or law firm that can be contacted, telling them where to find a physical copy in your house, or providing access through a digital vault.  The most important thing is that you keep the information current and accessible by the right people.