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  • Writer's pictureAlan D. Feller, Esq.

Locate your documents and keep them safe – physical and digital storage options

It was 10 o’clock in the morning. The guy with the drill was an hour late. There are worse places to hang out than a bank in Rockland County, but I was getting antsy. The point of this exercise was that a safe deposit box was thought to contain an original Will. The box’s owner had died. No other person had access to this box. Our office had to obtain a court order from Surrogate’s Court to open the safe deposit box and search its contents. It was about 10:10 am when the drill guy showed up. He performed his task efficiently. The box was removed from the vault and placed on a conference room table so the bank employees and myself could see what was inside. No Will. A Sears credit card from the 1970’s, some New York Telephone bills and a small marble collection rounded out the contents which would remain with the bank until an Estate Administrator was appointed. After a few shrugs and some handshakes, I exited the bank a little wiser. Document storage should not be an afterthought.

Physical storage of legal documents in a fire-proof box in one’s home is the preferred option for safeguarding Wills, Trusts, Powers of Attorney, Health Care Proxies, Living Wills and other important papers. While many people store original deeds next to their Wills and Powers of Attorney, there are some important facts to keep in mind. Recorded deeds are public records. Before any deed transfer is initiated, an online search of the most recent recorded deed is often necessary to ensure that proper title is being transmitted. I am not saying that you should expel the deed from your fire-proof box, but understand that your original deed is not in the same class as your Will. Cooperative Apartment documents are different. Original Co-op stock and lease documents should be kept safe, because they are usually not public records and replacement costs can be prohibitive.

Digital storage of documents has evolved over the last two decades. Scanned PDF’s saved on a desktop or to a thumbdrive were reasonably reliable. The primary fear was mechanical failure or accidental erasure. The advent of cloud computing with redundant server systems changed how we store and interact with documents. Smartphone apps offer gateways to the Cloud, with the ability to scan, save and transmit a document on any device at any time. Add to this, there is greater institutional acceptance of digital legal document copies for the purposes of linking a Power of Attorney to an account, setting up a Trust account, or a range of other services. Dropbox, Onedrive and a host of online cloud storage providers allow you to organize and share your documents without worrying about device failure. Financial companies and law firms maintain their own encrypted client cloud portals which store legal documents for easy access. This new paradigm has reduced the reliance on original documents. Original Wills are still necessary for Probate, but scans and copies of advance directives are accepted with regularity.

There will always be security concerns with cloud systems and hacking, but the ease of scanning and saving vital legal documents is a huge advantage over poorly executed physical storage options. Just ask the drill guy.

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