Do You Know Where These Important Documents Are?

Keeping your important papers organized can make everyday tasks like applying for a loan or changing your address easier. And in emergencies, being able to locate vital documents is absolutely critical.

“Think of a disaster like a fire, flood, or earthquake. The recovery can be lengthy and stressful. Your resources and the ability to utilize them on a short string could become more important than ever,” says Neal Stern, a Long Island-based CPA and member of the American Institute of CPAs National CPA Financial Literacy Commission. “Planning beforehand, before disaster strikes, is a really smart and thoughtful thing to do,” he shares.

Follow his simple advice to keep your papers safe and accessible.

In a Safe Deposit Box or Water- and Fireproof Safe 

Store these cards and papers in a safe deposit box or waterproof and fireproof safe. The originals can be very difficult to replace:

Birth and marriage certificates, passports, and social security cards: Along with your driver’s license, they’re helpful for establishing your identification with financial institutions. If you can’t locate them you may have difficulty getting loans or financial assistance. These documents may also be needed for putting through a change of address.

Car titles and registrations: If your vehicle is damaged or destroyed you may need to produce these documents right away for your insurance company. If your car is fine and you just want to sell it, the process may be delayed if you can’t find the title or registration.

Property deeds and mortgage papers or lease documents: You’ll need the paperwork that proves your ownership if you ever want to sell your home. If you have a lease or mortgage, you will want to get at those papers so you can preserve your rights and understand your obligations after a disaster.

In a Safe Outside the Home

Store copies of these records in a safe place outside your home (such as a close relative’s home outside your immediate vicinity):

Driver’s licenses and health insurance/Medicare cards: These items can help establish your identity and assist you in claiming medical services during an emergency.

An inventory of your possessions (photos are acceptable) plus appraisals of valuables: “Most disasters are property disasters,” Stern says. “You’ll need to be able to establish what you’ve lost for insurance claim purposes.”

Insurance policies and contact information for claims processing: Your broker’s number isn’t enough; she may also be affected in a disaster. If you have a life insurance policy with cash value, it can be a good source of emergency funds.

Recent statements for your banking, investment, and retirement accounts: In an emergency, you’ll need to quickly assess how much money you have, and how much is available to withdraw without penalties. If you have copies of recent statements you can look through them and decide which resources are appropriate for you to use.

Documentation of home improvements: If you are selling your house you will need these records to show that all improvements come with the required permits. Going back to town hall to get these can be time-consuming and expensive.

Military records: Discharge papers can become very important if a family member is entitled to veterans’ benefits.

Will and trust documents/power of attorney: If a disaster results in the loss of a loved one, you will need these documents right away to arrange their affairs and an orderly transition of assets. If a loved one is incapacitated and there’s a financial power of attorney, you would need this document to manage their financial affairs.

Credit cards, loan records, and utility receipts: What if you are temporarily unable to receive mail at your address?  You’ll need to contact your banks, creditors, and utility companies. Without these records it may be difficult to reach out to them.

Tax returns for the previous three years: In the event of an audit, you will want these papers easily accessible. They’re also a handy point of reference for preparing future tax returns.

Health care proxies and living wills: These will help ensure you can respect a loved one’s wishes in the case of a medical emergency. 

Safe deposit box information (location, number, key, inventory of contents): It’s easy to forget what’s inside your box if you haven’t been there in a while. Loved ones may also need to locate the box in a crisis.

Medical/prescription records for all family members: This can eliminate medical guesswork in the case of an emergency.

Contact information for family members’ doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, and insurance brokers. If a loved one suffers a crisis, you may to reach any or all of these professionals quickly.