Updated: May 20
In a previous post, I mentioned the sudden death of a close friend. His passing was a clear reminder to me to stop dragging my feet and finish my will. It struck me that as a singleton, I needed to organize myself to determine how I want my affairs managed in an emergency, if I am not able to care for myself. In turn, I thought about how we manage our important documents and papers, especially in times of disaster. It follows that an example of important documents would be necessary to inform the conversation.
Social Security Card
Birth & Death Certificates
Driver’s License/ State ID
Health Insurance Cards
Passports and Visas
Insurance Policies: auto/life/home/renters
Before I dive into the matter at hand, I want to advise extreme caution when removing any of these documents from your home. The holy grails for identity theft are your full name, date of birth, and social security number. Carrying these documents with you might always make sense but you have just handed your identity and financial life over to another should you lose them. Keep them safe by leaving them at home!
Important documents come in all varieties and can be as simple as your most current pay stub to your birth certificate. Social Security Cards establish and verify identity while utility statements are used to verify residency at a specific location. Passports establish one’s national identity. Visas come in different types and are based upon the purpose and type of travel desired. Those of us of a certain age recall registering with the Selective Service upon our eighteenth birthday.
Many of our most important documents are seldom used but the loss, theft, or destruction of them comes with significant effort and frustration to replace. There may also be nominal fees associated with their replacement which only adds to the frustration. There’s a seasonality to some documents such as college transcripts. They may be required when applying for a job right out of college or to graduate/medical/law school but beyond that, you will likely never need them again. Keep them in a safe place until you're certain you no longer need them. At the other end of the continuum are mementos such as letters, family photos, and heirlooms. Our attachment to such items cannot be adequately valued given their personal nature and the memories attached to say, a wedding photo, letters from a friend long gone or birthday card from a grandparent.
It's not practical to cart around a filing cabinet of important documents and an overloaded backpack can be equally as unmanageable in an emergency. Home safes, filing cabinets, strong boxes, a box on the shelf in the bedroom closet or a storage bin in the basement all work to varying degrees. Some people opt for safe deposit boxes at the local bank, but this is not without its own set of drawbacks.
Given enough lead time and preparation, you can put the strong box or backpack in the car before you evacuate. It’s even possible that you can move it to a more secure location if such is your intention.
Businesses and government agencies back up their records but you should not-and cannot- rely upon their continuity plans. Their plans are intended to keep them operating efficiently, not to make life easier for you.
The easiest and most common method used nowadays is to take a picture of the document and store it on your phone. This backs up to the cloud and can just as easily be stored on a SIM card, flash drive or burned to a DVD. For insurance claim purposes, you can either photograph or record video of your heirlooms and store the video locally or in the cloud. Scanning documents is easy and the scanned copies can be easily stored on a flash drive or in the cloud. The cloud is not without its own challenges. You can forget your login credentials and the sites can experience power loss, as well. Accounts can be hacked and backup servers crash. No option is 100 percent foolproof, so redundant backups give you the most protection.
Current bank statements and utility bills are easy to download simply by signing into your account. In the interests of privacy and security, never access bank accounts, retirement accounts and the like on a public Wi-Fi network or computer that you do not own. I advise against storing documents listing account numbers and passwords on your work computer or on a flash drive in your desk at work. Minimally, you may not have access to it when needed and at worst, you could be accused of theft of company property. I also advise against keeping this information with a friend or relative. Desperation, revenge, or simple curiosity might prompt a tiny peek into your affairs and once opened, the door cannot be closed again. Save yourself from the unnecessary drama.
Regardless of how you decide to store your important documents, be sure to include a backup in your go-bag. You will need to do this for everyone in the household. This is especially necessary when dealing with complex issues such as legal guardianship, power or attorney, medical power of attorney, records of legal proceedings and so on.
First off, review the documents you are hoarding and determine whether it’s something you really need. If not, shred sensitive documents such as old pay stubs, utility bills, medical bills, as well as financial statements to name a few. For those that you deem necessary, photograph or scan, then save to a flash drive or burn to DVD. Place hard copies in a binder in your go bag or portable strong box. If the strong box is portable, simply take it with you. If you do not have a car, I do not recommend that you lug a strong box around. The digital copies or flash drive are your best options. Paper is heavy so be very selective about how much you throw into your bag considering that you will need room for other things.
Sort through your papers and determine what can be destroyed by shredding or burning and what you need to hold on to. Doing this in normal times allows you to make a decision based on necessity rather than one based on the fear of loss.