Finding important legal documents can literally be a matter of life and death in some cases. Sure, a living will wouldn’t have done much in the Evans case since the controversy surrounded a law, but Schaivo’s parents might have won their case if they had access to the right documents.
I’m not going to argue the ethics or morality of either case today, but it does highlight something we all need to be aware of. Having a last will and testament and knowing where to find it in a crisis is extremely important. So, what’s the best way to store your legal documents in this digital age?
Can I store a Will Electronically?
Bad news! The laws still have not caught up with technology, and most of us still have to sign a will the old fashioned way. You’ll have to keep a notarized copy in a safe place that your family members know about. More on that later…but there are a few legal documents you can store digitally. And actually, that’s most everything except for a will at this point. Contracts and even most mortgage documents are eligible for eSign these days.
Best Ways to store Paper Legal Documents
Since your will is probably one of the most important legal documents, I thought it would be best to start with tips for saving paper legal documents first. Later on, we’ll look at electronic storage for most everything else.
If possible, get two or three copies of your will signed and notarized by a reputable attorney. Since we have to stay analog here, you don’t have the option of cloud backups that we’ll be discussing below. Fires, floods, tornadoes and any other imaginable disaster are all concerns here.
As such, I recommend having a copy close to home in a fire safe and making sure at least three family members in three different households know where it is stored. Ideally, those relatives will be in three different counties with at least one being in a different state.
In a past life I worked in radio communications and we had a particular satellite receiver system that had three of those giant dish antennae spaced about 50 ft apart. The concept was spatial diversity. If something in the atmosphere interferes with one or two dishes, you’ll still get good signal to at least one.
Likewise, if your whole extended family all live in the same apartment complex and it gets blown away by a tornado, all three copies if your will probably landed miles away in a field somewhere. Place some distance between the copies and make sure your family knows how to get to each copy.
Best Ways to store Electronic Legal Documents
These are going to be your more common options since most everything can be electronically signed these days. Having said that, I think it’s easy to become too reliant on Internet connectivity. After all, what happens when the power goes out?
Low Tech Storage Options
I still like the idea of keeping your important legal records on a USB drive or keeping a portable DVD reader in a safety deposit box. That way, you can access vital records without internet connectivity. Just remember to keep copies spread out to avoid risk of disaster just like you would with paper records.
Connected Storage Options
When it’s available, the Internet gives you some great options for off-site backups that will prevent data loss in the event of a local disaster. Consider low-cost backup options like Carbonite or even Google Docs as a way to keep your records safe. You shouldn’t rely on this for 100% of your backup, but it’s a great option that will not cost you more than a few dollars a month, on average.
The bottom line is, if you’re not protecting your vital legal records, you’re risking being unable to prove that they exist in a court of law. Proper online backup and spatial diversity of paper or locally stored electronic documents can really help preserve your rights and make sure your wishes are carried out in the event of your death. So, back your legal documents and enjoy the peace of mind.