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Creating and Maintaining Critical Family Documents

An efficient household runs on organization, yet for many of us, when we get busy, the documents pile up and our "organization" is reduced to piles of paper. Even if you keep documents electronically, your files may not be quite in order. It is important to keep critical family documents updated and safely stored in a way that you can access them easily, especially in an emergency. Some of the following ideas will help you maintain your family's important documents.

What documents are critical for your family?

Important documents identify who you are, mark important life events, record medical history and define how you want your financial affairs managed. Assess your records to determine which documents are critical for managing the business and personal matters of your life. Which of these documents would be difficult to replace if misplaced or destroyed in a disaster? During this process, you may even find that you need additional legal documents to better prepare for taking care of yourself and your family. Here are suggestions of critical documents that may require safe storage:

  • Identification documents. These include birth certificates, adoption papers, social security cards and passports.
  • Documents marking important life events. These include marriage certificates; divorce decrees; DD Form 214: "Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty," critical for your participation in Veterans Benefits; other military records, such as DD Form 2586, "Verification of Military Experience and Training;" employment records; education transcripts; deeds to property and titles to vehicles.
  • Health records. These include immunization and other health records documenting major illnesses. Remember to include your pet's health and immunization records, too.
  • Financial documents. These include investment, banking and insurance documents, loan contracts, savings bonds, seven years of income tax returns and any cancelled checks pertinent to your tax returns. It is also helpful to include instructions on how to run the household finances, such as when and to whom you pay your household accounts.
  • Legal directives. These include documents that state your wishes should you be incapacitated, such as advanced health care directives, or, in case of your death, wills and powers of attorney.
  • Home inventory. A home inventory protects the value of the contents of your home. It's a good idea to keep one copy in a safe place outside of your home in case a disaster destroys your home. Some insurance companies offer online home inventory storage.
  • Content of your wallet. Copy items you carry with you every day, such as your driver's license, military ID and credit cards. These handy copies will make such items easier to replace should you lose your wallet.

You may have many more files filled with documents, but may not be sure which ones you should safely destroy and which ones you should keep. For help thinning your filing cabinet, consider "How Long to Keep Your Documents." If you are missing some documents, such as birth certificates, marriage or divorce certificates or death certificates, find out where to write for vital records.

Once you have designated your important documents, make copies of them and determine how to best store both documents and copies so they are safe and accessible. Be sure to tell your executor and your loved ones where these documents are stored. Remember that important documents contain very sensitive information that can give others access to your identity and the security of your personal accounts. Be very careful about protecting your documents.

How should I store my important documents?

Storing your documents is a key step in maintaining and protecting your critical records and the information they contain. Where you store your documents may depend on how often you use them. You may need to access some documents frequently; others you may hope you won't need for a long time. Here are a few tips for deciding how and where to maintain your documents:

  • Make a list of your important documents. It helps to have a list of all your important documents, where they are located and who has access to them. You may also want to make a list of the bills you pay, how you receive the bill (paper or electronic) and how often you pay them, in case someone besides you needs to maintain your household. If you receive your bills electronically, additional instructions will be needed for another person to access and carry out the payment.
  • Store most original documents in a safe deposit box. Protect your original documents by keeping them in a safe deposit box, with copies stored both at your home and with a loved one you trust.
  • Store some original documents with a lawyer. Documents that express your intentions should you die, such as wills, powers of attorney or trust documents, should be stored with a lawyer since the safe deposit box will be sealed if you die. Be sure to store copies with the executor, trustees or a loved one you trust.
  • Store copies of documents at home in a fireproof box or electronically. You may want to have quick access to your documents. One way to do that is to make copies to store at home, which you can safely store in your fireproof box. Another option is to scan documents into your computer and save the files to an external hard drive, which you keep in a safe location. Just remember to update your files periodically.

Ideally, paper documents should be protected from humidity and temperature extremes. Any important documents should be placed in a waterproof bag. If you are storing documents at home, place them in a fireproof box. Be sure to make of list of all your important documents and indicate where they are stored. Entrust this information to a loved one and be sure to include the location and number of the safe deposit box, as well as the location of the key. It is critical that you select someone with whom you are comfortable sharing such sensitive information.

Assembling your documents and then maintaining them when your status changes (birth of a child, divorce, etc.) is not a simple job. When you change to a new duty station, you will need to find a new location for a safe deposit box and update your list of where your documents are located. Once you establish a process for organizing your important documents, however, it will become easier to update your system. Having the critical documents of your life organized will bring you peace of mind and make you more efficient in running your family's affairs.


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