Don’t Wait for a Disaster: Secure Your Vital Records in Four Steps



During severe weather season, the threat of natural disasters reminds us to have our “house in order.” Being emergency ready means more than practicing your exit strategy, it also means knowing where your important papers are located and having a plan to bring your family’s vital information with you. Consider this: How quickly could you prove you own your home and the value of its contents?

As unsettling as that question is, it’s not what motivated me to straighten up our personal papers. It was the day our daughter took her driving permit test. Dad, the resident record keeper and driving instructor, couldn’t find her birth certificate! Here’s what I learned about how to organize our family’s papers.

Before you begin, you need to know what to look for.

  • Find a list of vital records at www.USA.gov.
  • Use the “Roadmap for Important Papers,” available at www.Extension.UMN.edu. This 8-page guide helped me tackle this project in four steps.

Locate Vital Records and Create Three Types of Files

Active – Keep the papers you refer to often in an accessible location: bills, warranties, bank statements, current receipts, etc. I placed a desktop organizer with a lidded file box on our kitchen desk to hold these types of papers and contain the chaos. Cost: approximately $15.

Permanent – Keep hard-to-replace papers, such as, ahem, ahem, birth certificates, passports, wills, vehicle titles, marriage license and a household inventory in a separate location. A fire resistant/waterproof safe or your freezer may work, but it’s recommended to keep these papers in a safe deposit box.

Inactive – Any active file papers more than three years old, except for items that you still use, like appliance manuals.  Retain tax records for seven years after the filing date. Toss old records—see  sidebar for criteria.

Sort your papers by type and create a file for each category: insurance, financial, health, school, etc. I placed these records with a copy of the “roadmap” in a plastic file box with a lid and handle. This provides quick reference and is easy to grab in case of an emergency. Cost: $23 plus some photocopying.

Safety Note: These documents contain account numbers and other personal identification information; keep them in a secure place to avoid theft. Originals or a copy should be stored off site.

Storing It All

Review your storage options. Do you need a safe deposit box, a home safe and/or an emergency box?

Make copies of each record. Store originals off site or in a home safe; place a working copy in the “Active” files and possibly a backup on a flash drive or CD.

Despite all of the digital storage options available, safe deposit boxes are still widely used. Debbie Hopkins, vice president at Platte Valley Bank, Parkville, advises, “When you need those physical objects [or papers], you have to have them. A safe deposit box is an economical choice.” The annual cost generally runs $25. Flash drives are another inexpensive storage device; many people keep current personal records on a portable flash drive.

Storage Costs

  • Fire-resistant safe: $180 and up; purchase at least Class B safe and secure to a floor/wall.
  • Safe deposit box: $25 or more per year, depending upon size.
  • Flashdrive: $10 plus scanning costs ($1/page or less, depending upon quantity).
  • CDs: $20 for 100. Store in home safe or off-site location.

Taking Inventory

Your permanent files should include a household inventory. Don’t worry about writing down everything you own –videotape or photograph your home and its contents, from pots and pans and sock drawers to holiday décor.

Some Surprises – As with any project, it takes longer than you expect and there are always surprises. In my case, the Roadmap identified some worthwhile tasks I had not previously considered:

  • Copy the contents of your wallets and include with your inventory – this would have been handy to have when my purse was stolen on a family vacation.
  • Make a list of insurance policies.
  • Make a list of prescriptions, allergies and regular therapies/treatments for each family member.

Cost: Supply costs are minimal; the largest expense is your time. I’ve made progress by working in two-hour blocks of time. Warning: This may lead to spring cleaning.

Put It Away … For a While

  • Commit to one hour or so per week to review active papers and file them. This is critical to maintaining your new level of organization. Shred papers that are no longer needed.
  • Maintain a routine and reclaim the time you used to spend searching for papers to do something fun.

Kathy Stump tries to keep track of her family from their home in Parkville.

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