Documents, Documents, Where Are the Documents?

Firebox for keeping important documents


My mother-in-law’s recordkeeping was a nightmare. She arrived at our house one day with a handful of papers asking me what she should do with them. The “papers” turned out to be bearer bonds, which anyone could cash with no questions asked.

Anna’s “fail-safe” method was to store important papers in manilla envelopes with cash stashed in freezer containers, instead of in a safety deposit box at the bank.

Keeping Anna’s important records safe suddenly became project Number One.

Ensure Security and Easy Access to Important documents

Having important papers secure, yet easy to find and use when needed, is a challenge for many older folks, but with a little work, it can be accomplished.

The most critical documents I gathered and secured in a small fire-proof safe for Anna included her social security card, her will, the health care and financial power of attorney she had given my husband, her birth and marriage certificates, the deed to her home, and title to her car. If Anna had had a passport, that important document would have been added as well.

While we opted for an in-home fire proof safe, bank safety deposit boxes are another easy way to keep important papers: just be sure someone has the access code and key to get into the box and the legal authority to do so. With weather extremes happening more regularly, keeping documents in a bank safety deposit box might be the wisest way to protect documents from fires, floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes.

Keep Backups In The Cloud

Now that we’re firmly in the digital age, experts recommend storing digital copies of your important documents in “the cloud.” Apple iCloud, Google Drive, or Microsoft OneDrive can all provide peace of mind for digital backups to paper documents. These drives are very secure, stored on a remote computer system that’s easily accessible to you and others you designate by giving verification codes.

If this sounds confusing, a full-service bank, your CPA, your financial advisor, or one of your skookum relatives—probably an older grandchild—can help you transfer these important papers digitally.

These documents were critically important after Anna got seriously ill. When she could no longer drive, we were able to sell her car and deposit the proceeds directly into her bank account. Shortly thereafter it became clear Anna would never return home, so with the proper documents and deed, my husband was able to put her home on the market.

Anna was lucky. Her home was paid for, and she had no other outstanding debts, but our resources were too taxed to pay for the full-scale assisted living her condition demanded. Selling her home was an essential part of being able to afford such all-encompassing care.

You should also keep other important documents accessible—life and health insurance policies, real estate and vehicle insurance policies, and 401(k), IRA, or Roth IRA information. Include as well any other investment information, such as the address, email, and phone number of your financial advisors and any account numbers under your name. Finally, be sure to keep three to seven years of tax returns in a safe place as well, in case the IRS comes calling with questions.

The only documents you need from day to day are your driver’s license or state ID (if you no longer drive) and your health insurance cards (both Medicare and any supplemental health insurance you have). Be sure to make copies of these documents as well and store them in your safe or safety deposit box. Limit the number of credit cards you carry at one time, and be sure to never carry your social security card: it’s a critical piece of information that scammers and identity thieves will try to swipe.

Recovering Lost Documents

Sometimes, you’ll have important documents you’ve lost over the years. In that case, knowing how to get duplicates is important. To obtain a replacement passport, you will need to submit a DS-11 form, found on the US State Department website, and bring the completed form to a passport office near you. You’ll need an original or official replacement birth certificate in order to obtain a passport.

If you need a replacement copy of your birth certificate, contact the state’s vital records department. The cost for obtaining a verified birth certificate is minimal. Be sure to order more than one, as you’ll likely need extras in the future.

Recently, my husband had to provide a copy of his birth certificate as well as a copy of his father’s death certificate for an estate going through probate. Luckily, we had both documents, so no time was wasted waiting for duplicates.

You can also get a copy of your marriage certificate by contacting your state’s vital records site or office.

Keeping important documents may seem mundane, but when you need them, knowing where they are can save a lot of time and anxiety. Be smart. Keep those documents safe but easily accessible. MSN

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