It used to be common for attorneys to retain possession of a client's will. Once the attorney was informed of the client's death, the attorney would review the will and notify the executor. Nowadays, many attorneys, myself included, will not hold original wills for their clients. (I keep only electronic copies of the scan of the document after it was executed.) Instead, it is the responsibility of the client to keep and protect the will. With that in mind, clients ask, "Well, where should I keep it?"
The instinct of many folks is to keep the original will in the safe deposit box at the bank. This is not the best option if you do not have a spouse or other co-renter on the safe deposit box contract. These boxes are sealed upon your death; without Letters of Administration it can be tedious and time consuming for your purported executor to gain access to it. Importantly, a person who has a Power of Attorney for you during your life cannot use that authority to access your safe deposit box after your death. Similarly, a deputy on the box might not have access to the box after your death -- be sure to check the rules with your bank.
A better alternative may be to keep your will in a fireproof box on a shelf in your home. Keeping the will in a fireproof box will (hopefully) protect it from fire, and keeping it off the ground will (hopefully) protect it from a flood. I've heard the recommendation that the box containing the will should be closed and latched, but left unlocked. The logic goes that, for the thief, a locked box contains the possibility of cash or a gun or something else worth stealing; an unlocked box that is revealed to only contain papers will be left alone. Keeping the box unlocked also makes the will available to your family without them having to struggle to recall the combination or locate the (typically very small and easily misplaced) key. If you have a deed to a cemetery plot, keep that in the same accessible place as the will. Your will and cemetery plot deed likely do not have the sort of information in them that would be immediately useful for identity theft.
Another alternative, specific to wills, is to deposit it with the county court. In Georgia and many other states, this can be done for a nominal fee. Once deposited in the court, the document will remain sealed until the court is notified of your death. or until your remove it yourself. If you choose to store the will with a court, however, it is essential that you inform your named executor. While storing a will at the court is safe, it is not a common option, and it may not occur to your executor to look there. Finally, if you decide to write a new will, you will need to return to the courthouse to recover the one filed there to destroy it. If you move after you store the will with the court, be sure to withdraw the will and refile it in your new location.
What about other documents, such as birth certificates, property deeds, car titles, original social security cards, marriage certificates, and savings bonds or other securities that aren't generally kept by banks? These are documents in which the original can be important and difficult to replace. They also may be useful to identity thieves. And they typically are not needed in the first few days after your death. Instead, they may be useful during the estate administration process, once an executor or administrator is in place. With that in mind, if you have a safe deposit box, these documents could be placed there. If you have a more secure home safe, like a locked gun safe, these documents could be safely stored within. A locked file cabinet, while somewhat less secure, may also be an option for many people.
Some other documents should be treated differently. An Advance Directive for Healthcare, for instance, should be copied and distributed to your healthcare agent, your back-up agents, your doctors and other medical treatment centers, and, if appropriate, to your family. Keeping this document locked up or hard to find obliterates its value. Keeping a photos of your own Advance Directive and those of the people for whom you are a healthcare agent on your smartphone may be helpful in case of an emergency.
A general Power of Attorney should be held by both you and your Agent(s). While Georgia law recognizes the validity of a copy of a Power of Attorney, for real estate transactions the original document will be needed. There may be a benefit of also keep with your Power of Attorney instructions on how to terminate the document if needed.
No matter where you keep your documents, it is important that you let your loved ones and intended Executor know where the documents can be found. If you have a locked home safe, make sure someone knows how to open it. The days immediately following a death can be stressful - providing your family and friends clear guidance on how to gain access to these most necessary documents is a kindness.
Updated August 21, 2018 to include additional information about storing a will with the court.