Thanks to online payment systems and secure cloud databases, our world is becoming increasingly paperless. Why write a check for your utilities bill when you can log onto your city’s website and click a few buttons to submit a direct payment? Why print off your airline ticket when you can check in online and send your ticketing information straight to your phone? Going paperless often saves time, cuts clutter, and is beneficial for the environment.
However, there are a few situations that still require physical documents. When you’re doing estate planning, and when your estate goes through probate, it’s essential that your personal representative and your heirs have access to certain paper documents. It might seem old-fashioned, but it’s the best way to ensure that your wishes are carried out after you’re gone.
Going All-Digital Can Make It Difficult for Heirs to Find Your Assets
If you use a lot of online services for your record-keeping, you no doubt have a slew of passwords that you’ve either memorized or recorded somewhere safe (hopefully not all in the same place, as this can be a security risk). Unfortunately, your personal representative and heirs aren’t mind-readers, and they won’t necessarily be able to find or figure out all your important passwords when attempting to take stock of all your assets. Your heirs will be able to gain access to some assets, such as the money in your bank account, simply by taking your death certificate to the bank, but in the case of some other documents, such as financial records stored on a password-protected computer, they may be out of luck.
Because of this risk, it’s important that certain documents, such as your last will and testament, still be on paper. If you do decide to store some other documents digitally, you should make sure they’re safely backed up on a password-protected computer (and choose a challenging password with capital and lower case letters, numbers, and symbols). Write down and store that password somewhere that it won’t fall into the wrong hands, such as in a fireproof home safe, or give it to your attorney to keep with other estate planning documents.
E-Filing Works for Some Documents, but Not Will or Death Certificate
It’s not just individuals who are making an effort to store more documents digitally; back in 2012, Florida’s court system began using an e-filing method that allows personal representatives and lawyers to scan and submit certain signed documents electronically. The system is designed to save money, space, and time, but while it has helped streamline parts of the probate process, there are still some documents that are best kept on paper.
Florida and almost all other states still require a last will and testament to be written in order to be legally valid. In some cases, a person might also save a copy of their will on their computer or make a video will, but any electronic will still needs to be accompanied by a written one.
Certified death certificates are also best kept on paper. Some clerk’s offices in Florida are now accepting scanned copies of death certificates, but this poses several risks. For one thing, Florida death certificates are produced on special, heavier paper that is designed to be difficult to tamper with, and many photocopiers will actually print the word ‘VOID’ across a copy of the document if someone attempts to scan it. If someone uses a photocopier that doesn’t print ‘VOID’ across the document, tampering may be a concern. For example, someone could forge a death certificate on normal paper (that looks indistinguishable from the special paper when scanned) and change important details, such as marital status, that could affect the way the estate is distributed.
Know When (and When Not) to Use Paperless Filing
While it’s perfectly reasonable—and even a practical decision—to go paperless with many of your estate planning documents, it’s essential that you take extra precautions to secure your online documents and to keep paper documents when paper documents are necessary. It seems unlikely that Last Wills are going to go digital anytime soon, as digital original wills could raise questions about authenticity, so be sure to prepare a written will.
The best way to organize your physical documents and determine what you can store digitally is to work with a probate lawyer. For help with your estate planning, or to ask any questions about probate and legal document filing that weren’t answered here, meet with a qualified Florida probate attorney at Wintter & Associates, P.A.
About the Author:
Christopher Q. Wintter is the founder of Wintter & Associates, P.A. and a board-certified expert in Trust and Estate matters by the Florida Bar. With more than 24 years’ experience as a practicing attorney, he also serves as an instructor and faculty member for the National Institute of Trial Advocacy (NITA)—the nation’s leading provider of legal advocacy skills training to practicing attorneys—and has earned the AV® Preeminent™ rating with LexisNexis Martindale Hubbell. He was also selected for inclusion in Florida Super Lawyers for 2011 and 2012 in Estate and Trust Litigation.