Earlier this year I conducted research involving safes that can be kept at home to provide safety and quick access to important documents, and other material. I saw information that discussed the importance of a fireproof safe (according to a report issued by the National Fire Protection Association, in 2013 there were 1,240,000 fires reported in the United States for a total of $11.5 billion in property damage). My research highlighted a need for the safe to also be waterproof (National Flood Insurance Program, flood.gov, reported that from 2005-2014 the total flood insurance claims averaged nearly $3.5 billion per year). I didn’t feel a need to discover statistics supporting safes for security reasoning, but nonetheless determined that any safe purchased should maintain all three qualities. A safe of this type will ensure that your birth certificates, passports, wills, trusts, etc. are secure. With my line of work being centered on the question “What happens if you die or become incompetent”, it makes sense for me to help individuals consider who can actually access their safe if they become incompetent or die? The answer is pretty simple: The only person that can access your safe in such situations is the person to whom you have given access. You have given someone access, right? How?
A common question arises in this context: who should I give access to, and how do I give them the access. With regard to the first question, the best advice that I can provide is that you only give access information to a person, or to those individuals that you trust, but advise them that they are only authorized to access the safe in times of need following your incompetence or death (the same considerations apply in situations involving safety deposit boxes). The provision of such access is best accomplished through the use of a “Letter of Instructions” included in your estate plan.
In Michigan, for example, the law affords individuals the opportunity to leave a “Letter of Instructions” with their estate plan. While this document is not required, it is important to have. The Letter of Instructions provides information, typically to your Successor Trustee or Personal Representative (or Executor/Executrix), that will aid them in discovering and acquiring the assets and related material needed to satisfy their duties. Among other things, the Letter requests the following:
- The location of your important papers (birth certificates, property titles, etc.);
- Information regarding any funeral or burial policies that you have (or if you don’t have such policies, you can say so, allowing your representative to refrain from looking for such information);
- The location of your estate planning documents, including whether or not such documents are also on file with your attorney (our contact information will also be listed on this form);
- The location of your safe and/or safety deposit box, along with the combination or location of the key to the same; and
- Access information for online accounts (banking, etc.) and social media (facebook, twitter, etc. – although various social media outlets currently maintain policies regarding access to such accounts and procedures for maintaining or deleting such accounts upon your death).
It is a very good idea to complete this form, providing a copy to the person that you trust to follow your access instructions. We also request a copy of the form once you have completed it, just in case your chosen representative loses his/her copy. We keep the copy of your completed Letter of Instructions on file with our copy of your will, trust, etc. By providing this information to your chosen representatives, you are easing the duties of your representative while also relieving him/her from the burden of seeking court approval to bypass safety measures (safe/safety deposit boxes) that you have put in place. The Letter of Instructions is a very simple document. Procrastinating with regard to its completion, however, could cause severe stress and frustration for those that you have made responsible for handling your wishes. So go ahead, take the next few minutes to complete the Letter of Instructions in your estate planning binder. They’ll be glad that you did!