Where Do You Store YOUR Important Documents? Is Your Will, House Deed, Or Power Of Attorney Backed Up And Accessible?

October 31st, 2007 | by MG | (Visited 45,792 times)

I Lost Everything In A FireA dear friend of mine had her entire family belongings taken from them during a house fire in her early youth. Now picture that for a moment with the fires in California burning. Sit back and wonder if you no longer had pictures to show you what you looked like at 4 years old. If you no longer had home video to remember a relative who had passed. If your entire history had been wiped out.

I try to keep important photos and videos spread out over online locations, different physical hard drive locations, etc. The truth is that I need to invest in a large fireproof safe just to be sure. I don’t look at them often, but the pictures of my past, are what my children will use to remember their relatives and see what daddy looked like when he was a kid. I back up the new stuff, but my own childhood memories are in a flammable cardboard box, all heaped together. It’s something that grates on me weekly.

But back to topic, what about the lesser thought about items such as your social security card, your birth certificate, your will, power of attorney, or the deed to your house? Are those sitting in a kitchen drawer somewhere? Perhaps in the office? Are they vulnerable to a fire, to theft, mishandling, etc?

What would you do if you had five minutes to clear out of your house?

Five minutes to grab every crucial financial document before the house crumbles — property titles, wills, insurance records, Social Security cards — and you need to do it, even with all the chaos surrounding you.

Could you do it? Think fast! Would you even know what to grab?

5 Affordable Tips to Storing and Securing Important Documents

Safe Deposit Box
Consider getting a bank safe-deposit box (annual fees at about $30-$50), and stash original documents there. Keep copies in your house if you might need to refer to them, and consider giving another set to a family member who doesn’t live with you or a trusted friend. Keep one key to the box in the house and another with a trusted friend or relative.

Fireproof Safe
Purchase a fireproof safe for your home (from $39). It’s a much more convenient than running to the bank. Look for a safe that can be bolted to the floor and has at least a one-hour fire rating. And if you live on a high floor, opt for one with impact protection as well.

Simple Accordion File
If that’s too much of an investment, try keeping all your most important documents in a single accordion file in a file cabinet (a bright color will make it easy to spot), so you can grab everything quickly in an emergency.

Document Storage
Consider your home’s location when you pick the right spot to store your key documents: If you live near the coast or in any other flood-prone location, don’t put them in the basement — think attic.

Let someone else know where your key documents are located, in case you’re unable to access them when needed.

More on Safety Deposit Boxes and Safes

In many cases, banks will let you take out a box, even if you’re not a customer. Remember that you should use your safe deposit box for originals; you’ll still need copies at home if something tragic should happen to you and your safe deposit box is sealed. If you’d rather have your records at home, then get a fireproof safe. A good rule of thumb is: Put documents in the box if you can’t easily replace them or if you don’t know what might happen if you don’t have it.

If applicable, you should have official or certified copies of documents for your safe deposit box. “Official” means an original copy with all required signatures. Select documents, such as birth certificates, must also be certified or notarized to be considered valid.

You can get most government records for free or at low cost from a government office. If you are unsure whether you need a certified copy, or want more information about which local government office can give you an original of these documents, contact your local consumer protection office. For example, when I needed these documents for my children, a google search and a few calls gave me all the info I needed to bring with me to my local Vital Statistics office.

While there will always be companies that offer to sell you copies of official papers, you should check with the appropriate government agency to see if they will provide the same information free or at a lower price than you may find out there on the web.

Which Documents Should I Keep?

When gathering everything together it’s best to rummage through the house, garage, and bedrooms for all papers that look important. Find a staging area and set all those papers down there, organizing them into categories (who they belong to) and sub-categories (medical, financial, etc.). Here’s a short list of some very important documents you should have copied, backed up, and stored in a safe location:

  • Auto Titles
  • Household inventory
  • Veteran’s papers
  • Bonds and stock certificates
  • Important contracts
  • Passports
  • Birth certificates
  • Citizenship papers
  • Marriage certificates
  • Adoption papers
  • Divorce decrees
  • Wills
  • Advance directives
  • Powers of attorney
  • Death certificates
  • Deeds

Getting Organized – Files To Keep Readily Accessible At Home

Many documents you’ll never need to see again unless a tragedy happens. However for tax time, checking bank record accuracy, and other reasons, you’ll want some documents nearby at all times. Stored in a safe location at home:

  • Tax receipts (like those received for charitable deductions)
  • Unpaid bills
  • Paid bill receipts
  • Current bank statements
  • Current canceled checks
  • Income tax working papers
  • Employment records
  • Health benefit information
  • Credit card information
  • Record of passwords
  • Insurance policies
  • Family health records, including vaccination histories
  • Appliance manuals and warranties
  • Receipts of items under warranty
  • Education information such as copies of diploma, transcripts
  • Inventory of safe deposit box (and key)
  • Loan statements
  • Loan payment books
  • Receipts for expensive items not yet paid for

Additionally, this article from Montana State University also has some great tips on what to keep and where to keep them. With the floods and fires of recent, I’m sure this is a topic near to everyone’s heart.

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Trackback by ado
Jan 06, 2008 8:33 PM

Thank you for the article. I needed this.

Comment by brent
Apr 26, 2008 12:15 AM

Good advice. I dealt with a fire last year. It can take weeks just to remember everything you lost and make a list. I wish I would have been better prepared.


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