Storing a will for safekeeping
Storing a will securely is not always straightforward. Wills are important private and confidential documents. A will only takes legal effect on the death of its maker. After being signed and witnessed (executed) an original will should be stored in a safe and secure place. Ideally the place should be fireproof, and protected from tampering or destruction.
Will-makers should consider their personal circumstances, family and other relationships when considering storage options. In some situations storing a will at home is not advisable if it is likely persons adverse to what it contains can access it. In these cases it may be worth exploring the options to have it kept elsewhere, see below.
The importance of an original will
Probate law requires the production of the original will document when applying for a grant of probate from the court. Even if the estate is small and a grant of probate is not required banks and other financial institutions mostly require to see the original will or a certified copy of it. Without this important document timely administration of the estate is delayed and at additional costs until resolved.
Sometimes in narrow circumstances the court may approve a copy of a lost original will to be admitted to probate. Otherwise the estate is distributed according to the rules of intestacy. After going to the trouble of making a will ensure the original is protected and your appointed, chosen executor/s know its whereabouts. Below are ways to store an original will, in particular order of preference.
Don’t forget any codicils to the will or other documented testamentary dispositions
A codicil is a short one or two page document used to make a minor change to a will. It is then put with the will but not physically attached. Being unattached means it is possible the two documents could become separated and misplaced. The law defines a “will” to include a codicil and any other testamentary disposition. For example state and territory wills and succession legislation contain definitions of a will like this except Victoria. It is therefore important that all testamentary documents are securely kept together.
Approaches to storing a will
Original wills may be stored with your personal papers, preferably in a secure, fire and water-poof document safe.
1. Law Firms
Some law firms offer storage facilities to their clients for the safe custody of wills and other legal documents.
2. Storing a will in safe deposit facilities
Bank safe deposit boxes
Storing a will in a safe deposit box at your bank. Some banks offer a variety of storage services for a fee, including packets, to keep documents secured. For example, the Commonwealth Bank offers a service, at the time of writing here, and Westpac here.
Other document storage services
3. Storing a will with Public Trustees
At the time of writing, the following Public Trustees offered will storage services:
In Western Australia:
The WA Public Trustee provides the WA Will Bank. A fee maybe required for people who have not used their services to draft the will.
The Victorian Will Bank of State Trustees of Victoria. In addition powers of attorney and other end of life documents may also be stored. Charges apply per document, but if State Trustees have been nominated in the will to act as executors and/or attorney, in the case of a power of attorney, the charges may be waived.
In the Northern Territory:
The Northern Territory Public Trustee in the Department of the Attorney-General and Justice once offered a free storage service, presumably if nominated as the executor in the will. Such service offerings vary from time to time – to find out more, find their contact details here.
The Public Trustee of Queensland states that if you make your will using their services they will store it at no charge.
In the ACT:
In the ACT the Public Trustee and Guardian will store your will free of change if you make your will using their services. They retain the original and give you a copy.
Also in the ACT wills can be deposited with the Registrar at the Supreme Court: see section 32 of the Wills Act 1968 (ACT). A record of all wills is kept in a register, and any person may search it, s34 of the Wills Act. There is a fee for this service. Information can be obtained from the Court Registry here.
In Tasmania, at the time of writing, there does not appear to be storage facilities specifically for wills such as those provided by some Supreme Courts in other states.
If you have your will prepared by the Tasmanian Public Trustee, they can hold the original document in their safe custody for free as part of their will and executor services. Solicitors preparing wills on client instructions may offer storage facilities to their clients. A bank safe deposit box may be used. Private self-storage facilities for documents are another option such as store-it-safe in Launceston.
4. Probate Registries of the Supreme Courts
New South Wales
As provided by the Succession Act 2006 in NSW, anyone can deposit their will with the Probate Registry of the Supreme Court for safe keeping, find more here.
The Probate Registry of the Supreme Court of South Australia suggests the following in taking care of an original will:
- place it in an envelope or plastic packet;
- don’t remove staples, pins and the like (if there are any) to photocopy or scan it;
- don’t attach any pins, clips staples etc to it. If there are any holes, marks in the paper left it may raise the question as to whether the will has been tampered with requiring explanation by affidavit.
In addition it is worth placing a label on the outside of the envelope or packet with the following information:
- The willmaker’s name and address as it is recorded in the will;
- Name and address of executors as stated in the will;
- Date of the will;
- If being stored in a storage facility the name and contact details of the person depositing it.
Codicils – keep with the will
Similarly any codicils made to a will should be stored together with that will in a safe and secure place.
Storing copies of an original will
Scanned copies of an original will document can be stored electronically in various ways. For example in a password protected file or on a password protected USB flash drive device, which in turn needs to be kept in a safe and secure place.
Tell your executors, personal representatives or someone trustworthy
Although a will is a private and confidential document it is helpful to let your executors know where to find your original will is when the time comes, whether this be at home, with your solicitor or elsewhere and their contact details. It can save your executors, legal personal representatives, trusted family or friends a lot of time.
There are online services who will register the location of your will and other important documents for a fee, whether kept at home or elsewhere.
Problems with storing in obscure ‘safe’ places
Missing wills can cause great anxiety, difficulty and delay as loved ones search high and low; unsure whether the original will is even lost. Was it intentionally destroyed by the deceased? If the will had been secreted away in some obscure place, such as being put in a container under the house or in the roof, then the danger is that unless executors or loved ones think to search every nook and cranny, it may be concluded that there was no will. In that case the estate would be distributed according to the intestacy rules, which may not give an outcome the deceased wanted, given the trouble they went to making a will.
Nor perhaps it is a good idea to do what one lady did in storing her will. One version of her will she kept in the dining room drawer knowing that certain relatives would check it out in her absence. Then she kept another will, the intended final version somewhere else! Maybe she felt she had good reason – but the danger with this can be confusing to executors. Which one did she intend to be her last, final will.
7 Sep 2014, updated 17 January 2023.
Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation.