SAFEkeeping Important Documents

As an estate planning attorney I prepare legal documents for people all the time. Documents such as Wills and other estate documents are usually stored away for long periods of time without much further thought. Have you given any thought to where you should store these and other important documents? The first question you need to ask is what do I want to protect them from? Those should include fire, water, and to protect your privacy. However, you also need to maintain ease of access. I normally advise my clients not to place their Wills and other estate planning documents in a safety deposit box because you may need them during the night, weekend or holiday. You want to have access to them for yourself and your family fairly quickly. This generally means you need to keep them in your home. I also usually recommend that they purchase a small fire safe to store them in just in case a fire breaks out in their home.

It wasn’t until recently that I started taking my advice a step further. Where should you keep your fire safe? The answer is, as low in the structure as possible and, preferably, along the outside perimeter of the structure to minimize the temperature it may be exposed to. Most fire safes are rated for 1500-1700°F with a maximum time exposure of 30-60 minutes depending on your specific safe. The normal house fire burns at about 1100°F so the safe will probably survive. However, assuming there is enough oxygen inside the safe, paper combusts at 451°F so the longer the safe is exposed to these temperatures, the more likely the papers inside will still not survive. Therefore, by storing your safe low and near the exterior of the structure, you are increasing the chances of the documents surviving by placing it where the temperatures are the lowest for the longest periods of time.

In addition, you must also consider if your basement is prone to flooding. If so, then you still need to have your safe elevated to a safe level in the event your basement does flood. The documents are of no use to you if they are destroyed.

Finally, it is also important that you let the important people in your life know where the safe and your documents are and how to get into it if and when the time comes.

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