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  Home & Family Finance Resource Center

Disaster-Proof Your Important Papers

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:
  • 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
    Recovery from a disaster can be easier if you're prepared for the worst.
  • 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)
  • 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 Plannerô 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."
Identification is the single most important type of documentation to protect and take with you.
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.

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. 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.
Preparing your documents for disaster is different from the usual process of organizing.
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.) "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.
Technology offers some excellent tools to bridge the gap between safety and convenience.
"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.

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.
Disaster preparedness gives you incredible peace of mind.
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.

E-Tools for protecting and updating your information

Here are some tech tools that will allow you to collect, protect, and update your documents and records quickly and easily: Photo Web sites such as and allow you to upload photos, which you then can retrieve from any computer using your username and password. Many photo storage services are free. A scanner is a great tool for converting important documents and precious photos and negatives to electronic files that you then can upload, copy, or burn to disc. These days you can buy a good-quality photo scanner for as little as a hundred dollars. And they're so easy to use, you could be set up and scanning in less than an hour. Personal Web space, often provided free by your ISP (Internet service provider) or with your e-mail account, can be password-protected and used to upload PDFs (portable document format, a type of electronic file) of important documents you've scanned or converted. If you aren't allotted any space, or not enough space, you can pay for a Web hosting package, which should include plenty of room to store all your files. Be sure to password-protect your site and give the address and password to the appropriate people. If you have an e-mail account that provides a large amount of storage space and the administrator doesn't automatically delete old messages, you can e-mail information and attachments to yourself and access them via the Web later. Be sure you understand the provisions of your particular account.
Don't be overwhelmed by the process of preparing for a disaster.
Online fax services such as eFax allow you to fax yourself important records. The faxes come to you as e-mail attachments that then can be saved in your mailbox or burned to disc. There may be a nominal charge for whichever fax service you choose. A digital camcorder or camera will allow you to create video or photos of your home, cars, furnishings, valuables, and other possessions. Keep copies in different places. A USB flash drive, as small as your thumb and able to attach to your keychain, provides anywhere from 128MB to 2GB or more of hard drive space on which you can store all your important electronic files, from document scans to photos. Be sure to buy one that allows password protection. Online bill pay through your credit union, bank, or other provider enables you to pay bills even if a disaster interrupts mail delivery. The service is accessible from any computer. Be sure that anyone else who might need access to the account knows the username and password. You also can set up automatic bill pay directly with certain service providers. If you use money management software (Quicken, for example), use it to track and make notes of major purchases. Back up the file regularly on a CD you keep in a safe place and on your USB flash drive. The software developer also may offer a backup service, though there may be a fee to use it. Use a brokerage account at a reputable investment firm to hold your stock and bond certificates so that you won't be left having to replace them if they meet with disaster. Every major brokerage enables online account access, making it that much easier to get your finances back on the road to recovery. Since software and online tools often require users to establish an account, you could end up with many usernames and passwords to keep track of. Rather than depending on your memory, especially during a crisis, create a list of access information. Keep one copy (printed or on disc) in your safe deposit box. Keep another copy somewhere easily accessible but safe from unwelcome eyes. For example, you could keep the list on your password-protected USB flash drive. If you create the list in Microsoft Excel or Word, you can "lock" the spreadsheet or document as well and then store a copy online, on your flash drive, or on a CD. (Use your software's Help tool to learn more about password protecting a document.) Remembering the one password to this master document is much easier than remembering a whole list of usernames and passwords.

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