Financial Resource Center

Money Management

Disaster-Proof Your Important Papers

by Monica Steinisch / May 22nd, 2006

If you had to evacuate your home tomorrow, would your most important documents and personal information be safe and accessible? Christopher, a credit union member now living in Virginia, learned firsthand the value of being prepared for a quick retreat. He and his parents had to flee their home in St. Bernard Parish, an area east of New Orleans, when Hurricane Katrina swept in. Before leaving, the family scrambled to gather important documents, including birth certificates, Social Security cards, military records, and insurance policies. Thanks to the paperwork they took with them, Christopher's parents were able to quickly and easily register for benefits from organizations such as FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). They also were able to contact their insurance company to take advantage of coverage that provided for mortgage payments while they were homeless. Christopher and his parents were one of relatively few families who gathered their paperwork in time. As their experience shows, recovery from a disaster can be easier if you're prepared for the worst. If you don't think disaster preparedness is something you need to be concerned about because you don't live in earthquake, tornado, hurricane, flood, or wildfire country, consider that the American Red Cross responds to more than 70,000 disasters each year, most of which are home fires affecting just one or a few families. So exactly what should you protect, and how?

Know what to protect

The list of documents and records you'll want to have available after you've evacuated your home is long. You'll need access to some of these items sooner than others, but all are important enough to include in your "must have" list:
Recovery from a disaster can be easier if you're prepared for the worst.
  • Proof of identification: driver's licenses, birth certificates, adoption papers, Social Security cards, passports, citizenship papers (such as a "green card" or naturalization documents)
  • Proof of marital status: marriage license, divorce decrees, child custody papers
  • Proof of military service status: current military ID, military discharge (DD Form 214)
  • Insurance policies: homeowners, renters, flood, earthquake, auto, life, health, disability, long-term care; have at least the policy number and insurance company contact information for each type of coverage
  • Property records: real estate deeds of trust and mortgage documents (at least the two-page settlement statement provided by the title company showing the actual cost of the house and purchase expenses); rental agreement or lease; auto/boat/RV registration and titles; video, photos or a list of household inventory; receipts for major purchases; payment records for major home improvements; appraisals of jewelry, collectibles, artwork, and other valuables
  • Medical information: immunization and other medical records, prescription information (drug name and dosage), health insurance ID cards, physician names and phone numbers, powers-of-attorney for health care, and living wills
  • Estate planning documents: wills, trust documents, funeral instructions, power-of-attorney documents, attorney name and phone number
  • Financial records: first two pages of your previous year's federal and state tax returns; stock and bond certificates, investment records, brokerage and retirement account information; credit card, checking and savings account numbers; contact information for credit unions, banks, financial institutions, credit card companies and advisers (if there are problems with mail delivery, you'll want to notify creditors)
    Identification is the single most important type of documentation to protect and take with you.
  • Pet information: medical and vaccination records; current photos and ID chip numbers in case you're separated
  • Business records: recent business tax returns, including sales tax and payroll returns; a recent backup of your accounting software (such as QuickBooks)
  • Other: personal address book; a letter with instructions for family or friends (for use in a situation where you're not present); backups of important computer files; a list of usernames and passwords for online accounts; a key to your safe deposit box; a recent photograph, fingerprints and dental records for each member of the household (some police stations and nonprofits fingerprint children free); account and contact information for utilities and other services (you may have to provide a new billing address or cancel certain services); a list of important documents and where originals and copies are located.
If you have limited time--or patience--for gathering these records, focus on the ones that are most important to have on hand at all times and those that are the hardest to replace. "Identification is the single most important type of documentation to protect and take with you," says Brent Neiser, a Certified Financial Planner™ and director of Collaborative Programs for the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE), a nonprofit based in Greenwood Village, Colo. "If you don't have ID, you'll have to start at square one. And proper ID can help you successfully replicate other types of records." Likewise, trying to recreate certain types of records, such as receipts for major home improvements completed over many years, would be difficult and time-consuming, if not impossible. Since you need these records to reduce any capital gain you report when your sell your home, losing them could be an expensive mistake. On the other hand, you easily could get a copy of your tax return from the IRS or your tax preparer, so that falls lower on the list of "must have" paperwork.
Preparing your documents for disaster is different from the usual process of organizing.

Safekeeping for your documents

Ramona Creel, founder of, a site that offers organizing solutions, products, and referrals to professional organizers, first started thinking about the importance of gathering and protecting important papers when her sister's neighborhood was struck by a severe tornado. Creel points out that preparing your documents for disaster is different from the usual process of organizing, which normally focuses on reducing the paperwork you hold on to. "Preparing for a disaster," says Creel, "is less about tidying up and more about gathering and protecting, which means making multiple copies of important documents and storing them in a few different places." Those secure spots should include a safe deposit box; a lightweight, lockable, fireproof metal box you keep at home; and with a friend, relative, or attorney out of the immediate area. You can rent a safe deposit box for about $30 to $50 per year at your credit union or bank. Keep one of the safe deposit box keys in your evacuation box. Deliver the other, along with box location and an inventory of contents, to your attorney, relative, or friend. Store the originals of most documents in your safe deposit box. Place copies of these originals in your home evacuation box and send copies to your trusted friend or relative.
Technology offers some excellent tools to bridge the gap between safety and convenience.
One important exception to the rule: Do not store your original will in your safe deposit box, since it may be legally "sealed" after your death. Your original will belongs with your attorney or with a government registry if you live in a county that has one. Keep copies of your will in your safe deposit box, evacuation box, and, if you choose, with the person you named as administrator of your estate. As a final step, Creel recommends creating a "document locator," a list of where each one of your important documents and the key to your safe deposit box can be found. Be sure to include specific location and contact information, including the name and number of your attorney, and give copies to appropriate family members or friends.

Computers make getting organized easier

While a safe deposit box and home evacuation box are necessary, they have their flaws. A safe deposit box, especially one rented out of the area to avoid having both it and your home involved in the same disaster, can be inconvenient to keep up to date. And a home evacuation box that's convenient for you to get to and carry away in an emergency is also a sitting duck for thieves. Or, it could be damaged by water (the reason you should store all contents in sealed plastic bags) or be buried under rubble. Fortunately for those who know their way around a computer, technology offers some excellent tools to bridge the gap between safety and convenience. From digital cameras and scanners to software and online services, technology makes gathering, copying, storing, and updating your important papers and information faster and easier than ever before. (See the E-Tools for protecting and updating your information sidebar for a list of useful tech tools.)
Disaster preparedness gives you incredible peace of mind.
"The advantage to using technology for these tasks is that the burden and labor [required of the project] might be less than you'd expect," says NEFE's Neiser. He avoids having to make copies of his brokerage account statements by conducting all his investment transactions online. Neiser also suggests if services aren't provided to make sure billing is stopped in those cases. Keep in mind that you may want to cancel or suspend certain services if you will be displaced from your home for an extended period, or the providers of those services are unable to provide them, so you're not getting billed for something you're not getting. Keith Robertory, a preparedness expert for the Red Cross, says that although his organization does not provide computer or Internet access as part of its disaster relief services, electronic tools still can be useful. "In the case of a small-scale disaster such as a house or apartment fire, you could access your online information, such as accounts at your financial institution, using a computer at the library or in a neighbor's home," says Robertory, who himself has created a computer file that holds all his critical information. He updates the file as needed when contact information changes, and then prints out new copies and puts them in the right places for safekeeping. According to Fred Smith, managing director of HOPE Coalition America, the emergency preparedness and assistance division of Los Angeles-based nonprofit Operation Hope, FEMA is more often making computers accessible to individuals in their disaster relief centers. Other volunteer agencies that are active in disaster relief also try to make computers available for victims who need one. Still, there is no guarantee of when you will get online or be able to open a computer file, so be sure to hang on to hard copies of the information you'll need immediately.
Don't be overwhelmed by the process of preparing for a disaster.

Before better than after

There are so many benefits to being prepared for a disaster it's hard to focus on just one. Neiser believes disaster preparedness gives you "incredible peace of mind," allows you to concentrate on compassion for victims rather than on your own lack of preparation, sets an example for your kids, and teaches your "inner radar" to be tuned in to other vulnerabilities. Robertory explains that being ready for an emergency helps you cope because you know exactly what your next steps will be. It frees up your mind to deal with other issues, rather than the time-consuming tasks of proving who you are, tracking down account numbers, or trying to find contact information for creditors, insurance companies, and others. There are a lot of "systems"--binders, boxes, and software--for sale to help you identify and organize important papers and records, but you should be able to do the job free using the tips in this article and the Emergency Financial First Aid Kit (EFFAK) produced by Operation HOPE, FEMA, and Citizen Corps. The 15-page workbook offers useful tips and a number of fill-in-the-blank work sheets to guide you through the process. Be sure to download the companion piece to the EFFAK, the 18-page Personal Disaster Preparedness Guide, which allows you to record vital information not covered in the EFFAK and provides additional tips and resources. Don't be overwhelmed by the process of preparing for a disaster. "It's important for people to realize they're not going to do it perfectly the first time," says Robertory. "Keep plugging away at the project. Keep improving along the way." Being prepared not only will help you sleep easier, it will allow you to use your limited evacuation time to gather things like your vintage movie poster collection and the Victrola you inherited from your grandparents.
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