Your Estate Planning Binder: Tips for Proper Care and Maintenance

You finally crossed “getting your estate plan done” off your list, and you’ve (rightly) breathed a huge sigh of relief. By tackling this challenge, you’ve not only established protections for your loved ones and legacy, but you’ve also freed up some important “mental space” that had previously been preoccupied.

Once you create the documents that make up your estate plan, your estate planning attorney will prepare a binder containing all pertinent documentation. This estate planning binder is critical because it provides key information regarding your intentions after you pass away or if you become incapacitated. Once your trust is fully funded, your binder should also contain information about your assets. This makes administration easier for your family. This binder should be stored safely, reviewed regularly, and updated when necessary in order to avoid confusion when your loved ones need to refer to it.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts about how to complete this review process – to help you stay in control now that you’re there – let’s first take a step back and clarify a point that confuses many clients. Your estate plans and your financial plans for the future are two completely different things. They are both obviously important, and they both should be kept in a safe place and reviewed often. However, the estate planning binder has special importance because it contains your wishes and instructions for what should happen if you become incapacitated and when you die… as well as who should be in charge of what at those times. But this binder is not the same thing as your financial plan. Your financial plan is a comprehensive plan of the assets you have now (and the assets you may need in the future) to help you achieve your goals in life.

Where to Keep Your Estate Planning Binder

Your estate planning binder should be kept in a safe place along with your other important financial information. We recommend keeping it secured in a safe deposit box at your local bank or in a fireproof strong box, if you keep the documents at home. You can make photocopies or scans of the documentation for your own use if you wish to refer to them more frequently or have them as a backup. Remember, though, the original documents have legal significance, so don’t create a situation where your family is forced to attempt to rely on copies – you need to safeguard your originals!

Who Should Have Access to the Binder

You obviously have discretion regarding who can access your personal financial information. However, strongly consider retaining direct access yourself until circumstances require someone else to step in to take control. If you keep the binder in a safe deposit box, for example, you could keep a spare key in your home or office and notify your attorney, next of kin, or successor trustee as to the key’s location in case they need to use it. Talk to your bank about what limited access rights to the safe deposit box might be available.

How Often to Review Or Update Your Binder

Your financial situation is likely to change over time – and perhaps more critically, other powerful and unexpected life events can shift your priorities and necessitate an adjustment to your plan.

For instance, the death of a spouse or life partner, a new marriage, an illness or accident that affects your child’s future, a sudden job loss or the surprising success of a business venture that you’ve plugged away at for years, or even a spiritual epiphany can reshuffle what’s important to you.

These events can also limit or constrain what’s possible for your future. Without renegotiating these commitments in a conscious way, you’ll likely feel intangible unease about them. The moral is that your binder should be reviewed periodically and updated to reflect the changes that happen in your life.

As a rule of thumb, we recommend reviewing your estate plan as follows:

  • A quick review once a year
  • A thorough review every 3-5 years to ensure the documents reflect your current finances and intentions
  • Any time you experience a significant increase or decrease in income or wealth
  • Any time you experience a major life change, such as a birth, marriage, or death in the family
  • Any time you consider a change in who you want to benefit from your estate plan

Keeping your estate planning binder secure and up to date will reduce confusion and likelihood of disputes when others need to enact your wishes for your estate. As always, we are here to help. For peace of mind, give us a call to review or amend your current plan.

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