Safeguard Your Most Valuable Documents

August 20, 2019

It’s one of life’s most maddening, stomach-churning, and anxiety-filled experiences: frantically rifling through a dusty attic, rusting filing cabinet or other hidden cavity of the house looking for a critical document that has suddenly gone missing.

From birth certificates to death certificates, we accumulate vital documents that we should be able to locate in a moment’s notice for those pivotal times in life when we need that single piece of paper to prove our identification, confirm our legal right to receive funds or benefits or simply declare our will or intention, if we can no longer act or speak for ourselves.

What are these essential documents we should all hold close and where should we store them? Unless you can answer these questions with 100 percent certainty, read on. Do it for your peace of mind, for your loved ones, and those who shouldn’t be left to tie up your loose ends.

The Essential Documents

End-of-Life Documents

If you don’t have a will, get one. It will serve as the road map, as well as the legal and enforceable set of instructions that you want executed on your behalf. A living will provides instructions to be carried out should you become incapacitated or incapable of making your own health decisions. A last will and testament, on the other hand, specifies who or what will receive your assets after your passing. If you die intestate (without a will), the state where you live may make those decisions for you.

End-of-life documents include items such as trust and estate documents, life insurance policies, funeral arrangement preferences, and an organ donor card.

Financial Documents

First off, many programs for which you may qualify — Veterans benefits, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) — will require that you demonstrate financial need. Unfortunately, your word alone won’t do.

Therefore, organize and be prepared to readily access a list of documents listing all bank accounts, pension and 401(k) information, savings bonds, stock certificates or brokerage accounts, partnerships, and operating agreements, and deeds and titles to all property, real and personal.

Hundreds of millions of dollars sit unclaimed for years or decades simply because heirs didn’t know they existed or where to look. That shouldn’t be the fate for the money that you worked so hard to earn and accumulate over your lifetime.

Healthcare Documents

If you became sick or, worse, incapacitated, would your caregivers (doctors, nurses, loved ones) know your wishes or the level of care or intervention you want them to provide? Are those crucial decisions things you want to leave to chance? Would you want them chaotically searching for your vital documents when every passing second could put your medical situation more at risk?

Or maybe you’re simply applying for medical care through the VA or Medicaid. The absence of one critical document could delay or make you ineligible for the care or treatment you need.

If you haven’t already, arrange for a durable power of attorney. This document allows you to appoint someone you trust as your representative. Your proxy can take temporary responsibility for managing your finances and legal matters should you become incapacitated, such as in the case of a surgery or illness. This person can file insurance claims on your behalf and pay bills from your bank account to ensure your mortgage stays current and your electricity remains on until you are well again.

Among your medical documents, you should also include your living will (healthcare directive), personal medical history, authorization to release healthcare information, your insurance card(s), and long-term care insurance policy, if any.

More Indispensable Documents

There is a slew of other documents that will make your life run a lot smoother when you can easily and readily access them.

Think back to all those times you needed to show your birth certificate, whether it was to apply for a marriage license, social security card, driver’s license, a passport, or even a job.

Or what if you need to suddenly visit a relative out of the country and can’t find your passport? It can take four-to-six weeks to obtain a replacement, and even if you want to expedite the process, you may still have to wait two-to-three weeks, not to mention be on the hook for the expedited service fee of $60.

The following list is by no means complete, but it should get you off to a good start:

  • Birth certificate
  • Driver’s license
  • Social Security card
  • Passport
  • Marriage papers
  • Divorce papers
  • Online usernames and passwords
  • Military records
  • Safe deposit boxes and the location of their keys
  • Diplomas, education credentials or certifications
  • Contracts

Document Safekeeping for Natural Disasters

Natural disasters such as tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, floods and earthquakes (a 7.1 magnitude earthquake in Ridgecrest, Calif., on July 5, 2019) often strike without warning so it’s incumbent that every household have a detailed action plan to help them ride out an emergency and return things to normal as soon as humanly possible.  

This plan should list a prearranged meeting place for family members, along with the phone numbers of friends and family who can provide temporary shelter. It should also contain information for all family medical providers and insurance information.

Ideally, this information should also be entered into your smartphone, but be aware that if an electrical blackout occurs your phone may not be rechargeable until the power grid comes back online. Cell service could also be interrupted during this period.

Therefore, also consider using an off-site storage facility to house your important documents — or barring that, a trusted party who lives in another region of the country.

Document Safekeeping Under More Normal Circumstances

Safes have been around, believe it or not, for almost as long as humans have been on the planet. The costs of today’s home safe will vary on the level of protection they afford, such as their resistance to fire and water and the prying fingers of safe-crackers.

Equally important, you need to consider where to locate the safe. Placing it under the bed or on a closet shelf would certainly make it accessible to you, but this location might also make it an easy target for thieves, who could cart off the safe and open it later. An in-ground safe would certainly make it more difficult to remove, but the installation could easily cost as much as the safe itself. But this added expense might well be worth the extra peace of mind it provides.

For those irreplaceable papers and documents that would make you sleep better if you knew they were literally locked away in a vault, contact your local credit union or savings or banking institution about storing them in one of their safe deposit boxes. If you’re a customer, you may obtain the use of a safe deposit box for free or at a discount. It’s important to note that while the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) protects the money in FDIC-insured bank accounts, it doesn’t cover the contents in your deposit box. Be mindful as well that you can only access a safe deposit box during banking hours.

If you want insurance on the items within the safe deposit box, you have to purchase it yourself. Why would you? Just as thefts, fire, floods, and other disasters can damage your home, they can also wreak havoc with bank vaults.

You may also want to consider digitizing your important documents and storing them in the “cloud,” — a sort of digital vault — but anything digitized is also hackable.

While there are no guarantees in life, that’s no excuse for not trying to do all you can to protect yourself, and that includes organizing your important papers and putting them in as safe a place as possible.

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