Recently I got a call from the child of a client of mine who had just recently passed away. The child was panicky because they could not locate Mom’s Last Will and Testament. Mind you, this particular Mom was a very organized person. Bills were always paid on time; the house was meticulous; papers were looked at, dealt with, and either filed, scanned or discarded. The Mom had reviewed and updated her estate plan just two years ago, and had informed the children just what the plan was. But they couldn’t find the original document.
I’ve gotten plenty of calls like that over the years. The problem is that only the original Will can be brought to the Surrogate for probate. Until the Last Will and Testament is probated at the county Surrogate, the probate Estate — which is all the assets owned by the deceased person that aren’t co-owned, and have no beneficiary — is in limbo. The person named as executor cannot act. A house can’t be listed for sale, bank accounts can’t be touched, stocks can’t be sold. The probate process is a quick and easy process in New Jersey, but without an original Will, the plan so carefully crafted can’t be implemented without a court proceeding. Most legal problems have a remedy, and there are some interesting published cases concerning Wills that were lost, such as the Estate of Erlich. But these cases can consume a lot of time, and all the heirs have to be given notice. That means that if there is dissension in the family, the situation invites a fight.
This same principle applies to other estate plan papers — we had a case once where the Deed said the property was titled in the name of a Trust, but no one could find any trust documents! We couldn’t even tell from the deed whether it was a revocable or irrevocable trust.
So pick a safe and sensible place to store your original Will, and make sure your Executor knows where to look for it when the time comes.
Call us to review or update your estate plan, and for trust and elder care planning … 732-382-6070