Secure Document Storage of your Wills and Other Documents – Why it Matters

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Are you aware of the difficulties that your family could face if your documents can’t be found after your death? Do they know that if your Will can’t be found, the law presumes that you must have destroyed it, meaning that your last wishes will not take effect?

There are a range of consequences that stem from lost documents, including the fact that those who were intended to inherit might not. Family relationships may be damaged, and ultimately ruined, with the cost of the loss of those relationships hurting more than the loss of the inheritance. We have first-hand experience of problems that have arisen, and which show how important it is that your clients consider using safe storage solutions.  Here are some genuine scenarios – that actually happened and the fallout.

1 – Mrs Harrison  – Keep The Original Signed Copy of Your Will Safely

Mrs Harrison passed away after a short illness and her original Will could not be found when her family searched for it, even after carrying out extensive enquiries. 

She had been separated from her husband for twenty years, but her Catholic faith recoiled at the idea of divorce, so she never got around to finalising her divorce. Her family knew she had made a recent Will, and she had given a copy of the signed Will to her daughter for safekeeping. This confirmed that she wanted her children to inherit her estate, not her estranged husband. 

Her family were unaware of the presumption in law that states that if an original signed Will cannot be found amongst the deceased’s papers on death, they must be presumed to have destroyed it, and so it would be assumed that they did not want the Will to take effect. As the original signed Will could not be located within Mrs Harrison’s papers or anywhere else on her death, the presumption applied and she was treated as having died intestate. Her Will did not take effect, and her children did not inherit her entire estate as intended.

The family home was still in the joint names of Mr & Mrs Harrison and while Mrs Harrison had completed a severance of tenancy, this had not been lodged with the Land Registry and that document could not be found. Mr Harrison had fallen on hard times and was living in temporary accommodation, so he took his opportunity and occupied the house as sole owner.

This was frustrating and upsetting for the children at what was an already difficult time. Mr Harrison had become estranged, and he had not been in touch for years. To find that he could appear from quite literally out of nowhere and take the house (and most of the assets) made them very angry. If the documents had been located and processed there may have been a chance of reconciliation but now there was no chance. Expensive legal proceedings followed over the next couple of years, which only confirmed that Mr Harrison was entitled to the house and the assets which passed to him under intestacy. If the original signed Will had been stored and could have been located on her death, Mrs Harrison’s wishes would have taken effect.

2 – Mr Griffiths – Keep the Original Will in Good Condition!

Mr Griffiths kept himself to himself after his wife died and even though she had left him with plenty of money to give him good quality of life, he lost interest. He never had visitors and his house became like one of those houses that you see on Kim and Aggie’s How Clean is Your House or similar reality programmes.

He died of a sudden heart attack and while he had written a Will and given a copy to his two close friends (who were the joint executors and beneficiaries) the original could not be found. The probate office refused to accept the copy and his executors spent over two months going through mounds of newspapers, books, and mouldy paperwork before the original Will was found. Mice had chewed at the edges and it was soiled but after some careful cleaning up the original Will was accepted. 

If the original Will had been safely stored his beneficiaries could have employed house clearance instead of ploughing through mould and mouse droppings.

3 – Mr & Mrs Morris – Tell Your Beneficiaries Where Your Will is Stored

I learned about Mr & Mrs Morris from a client who was one of their relatives when he came to me for financial advice. Mr & Mrs Morris had prepared their Wills via a local Will Writer who had arranged his own private storage facility. They both died within a few months of each other and while they had told their children that they had written Wills, the children had no idea where the originals were stored. They made enquiries with the National Will Register and other bodies, but the Wills could not be found and after looking for over a year probate was processed according to the laws of intestacy.

A few years later the local Will Writer died and when his business was wound up, letters were written to all of the clients whose documents he had stored. The beneficiaries of Mr & Mrs Morris discovered that the original Will had made additional provision for some members of the family and also left money to friends. When the story was relayed back to me, I was told that one of the beneficiaries had tried to get hold of the original Will to destroy it but before it could be destroyed another solicitor got involved. The last I heard about this case is that claims were being made by the beneficiaries who had not received what was left to them in the Will. The family had “daggers drawn” and they were threatening each other with malicious intent.

Storing your Will with a local Will writer, in your bank, or in a secret place is of no use if your Executors cannot find it at the time of need.

4 – Mr & Mrs Burton – Use Secure Storage Rather Than Your Own Storage

Mr & Mrs Burton were clients who came to me for financial advice over ten years ago. They completed their Wills but did not follow through with financial advice.  I remember that they brought their son Barry (only a few months old!) when they came to the office for the attestation of their Wills. At their insistence they did not want to place their Wills into secure storage and despite my pleas they took their Wills away with them.

Mrs Burton tragically died when she was swept away in the floods of February 2020 and I was contacted by her brother who was left trying to sort out her funeral, her estate, and guardians for her then 12-year-old son. He informed me that Mr Burton had died two years earlier and as far as he was aware probate had not been processed. They had moved to a new house in the interim and left a lot of their belongings in their first house, which had been let to various tenants. Mrs Burton’s brother lived a considerable distance away, which meant that trying to locate documents in either of the two houses was extremely frustrating. I offered to help but all he wanted was a copy of the Will which was sent, and I did not hear from him again. As far as I know probate has still not been resolved and I do not know how orphan Barry is being looked after.

When we were trying to advise Mr & Mrs Burton, they had provided an authority for a Prudential pension and six months after Mrs Burton’s death, Prudential sent us a statement showing that there was a considerable sum which could have been paid out in full on Mr Burton’s death. We informed Prudential of the circumstances and tried to contact Mrs Burton’s brother again to let him know but again there was no response. In one of my blogs, I discuss ‘you can take a horse to water’ – all I can do is offer to help, I can’t make people take it. (read the blog here).

It is not enough to store your Wills and legal documents, just ask yourself if you were to die in a tragic accident like Mrs Burton would your executors be able to locate all of your assets? Millions of pounds of client monies lay unclaimed because executors do not know of their existence and have no way of finding them.

Storage is more than simply keeping your documents in a safe place

I have been involved in Will Writing for 30 years and for the last ten years I have used the services and expertise of Countrywide Tax and Trusts from Kenilworth.

When you store your documents with Countrywide, if your documents are destroyed by fire or flood, they can lodge an electronic version with the Probate Registry, and because they are independent professionals, they can affirm that they held the original and it was not returned to the client.

In addition, Countrywide can provide your Executors, Trustees, or Attorneys with legal advice at any time and if you decide to use their probate services at the time of need, they are one of the most efficient and cost-effective services that you will find.

These stories show how important it is that you arrange secure and professional storage of your Wills and legal documents in a place where they can be easily found. Safe storage of legal documents is one of the most important services that we offer because it provides peace of mind and ensures that your last wishes will be carried out.

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