I am often asked why some attorneys keep the original documents and why others do not. When I began practicing law, I did not understand why attorneys kept originals, and often came up with sinister reasons why. After 15 years of experience in practice and in life, I realize that there are valid reasons to keep those documents at the attorney’s office.
A grandfather, towards the end of his life, was taken care of by his loving grandson for over five years. The grandson did everything for the grandfather: mowing the lawn, preparing meals, cleaning the house, and getting his grandfather to appointments, etc. Grandfather’s children did little to nothing for him. After a few years, the grandfather went to his attorney and had his estate planning documents changed so that his grandson, and not his children, would be the sole beneficiary of his assets upon his death. Unfortunately, the attorney gave all of the original documents back to the grandfather, and when he died the grandson came in to my office to probate the estate. Unfortunately, the grandson was unable to locate the original document. He had a copy of it, and he also had a note that the original was in the safe.
Pennsylvania law provides that you must be able to produce the original Will for probate, and if you are unable to do so, you must prove what occurred to the document, and further that that if the original cannot be found, it was destroyed intentionally by the testator (here, the grandfather). However, if the original was left in the attorney’s office and, for example, the attorney’s office burned down, the attorney would be able to certify that the original document was there when the building burnt down. We tried everything to prove what happened to that Will, but unfortunately there was no way to prove what happened. We were pretty confident that the former power of attorney (the daughter), who was also a beneficiary under the old Will, still had a key to the house and made sure that that original Will in the safe at grandad’s house disappeared. Because the original could not be found, the grandson inherited nothing from his grandfather, and the children who did nothing for the last seven years of the grandfather’s life inherited everything.
The same is true for financial powers of attorney, which, sadly, all too often are used to take advantage of the principal; but if the original document had not been in the hands of the agent until it was necessary, that abuse of power may have been avoided.
Thus, your attorney has great reasons to recommends keeping your original estate planning documents at his or her office. We do it in our office as a courtesy to our clients so that they know where the documents are, and can get them when necessary.
By the way, these are also good reasons to destroy old documents as soon as you sign new ones, so there is no mistake about which documents are in effect, and so there are no old documents which can be used by unscrupulous relatives. Bring them with you when you sign your new documents – your attorney can shred them for you!
We can help with your estate and elder law needs. Just click here and give us a little information and we can take it from there.
Jeffrey Bellomo, Esq.