September is National Preparedness Month,
so I'll be posting a six-part series on things you can do to plan ahead
and reduce the impact of disasters, natural or otherwise. Today's post
is on the importance of getting your "important papers" in order while your life is comparatively calm.
(P.S. Part one was on ten quick and easy emergency prep activities.)
Step One: TCB with respect to these ten different types of documents.
Step Two: Once you've got everything organized and taken care of, scan the documents, convert them to PDF, password protect them (Mac users, here's how -- and you don't need any pricey software to do it or you can use these free Web tools), then upload them to a passsword-protected directory in your cloud service of choice.
You always want electronic copies because while it's fun to fantasize that you'll always have time to grab your important papers in case of an emergency, sometimes you're not even going to be home when a life-changing event hits. So stick back-ups in the the cloud.
OK -- let's get to those ten types of important papers.
ONE: Any and all insurance policies. You should always have the following on file: Copies of the policies themselves, your latest coverage statements, and a letter or business card with contact information for human beings.
In some cases -- auto, life, home, earthquake, flood -- that contact person may be your agent. In others -- health, employer-provided life insurance -- you will want your HR rep at work.
TWO: Any and all wills you've drafted. Haven't done one yet? If you can wait until next month, I'll be writing a series on what we did for estate planning and will-drafting.
(In addition to having your estate papers in order, you also need to make sure at least one other person knows where they are and what your wishes are.)
THREE: Any and all property titles you have. Do you know where your car title is right now? How about the deed to your house? You need to be able to lay hands on that stuff quickly.
Corollary to this: You may want to save any statements reflecting the settlement of a major debt. I saved the statements verifying that I had paid off my student loans and my car until my credit report reflected this reality for seven years.
FOUR: Your house/apartment/condo inventory. You know what this is, right? It's an itemized list of what you own. There are all sorts of checklists and websites you can use to put one of these together.
Or, you can be lazy like me: Our housing inventory is a photo set on Flickr that I have set to be viewable by me alone. I snapped photos of everything we owned, and then I go back at my leisure and add notes to all the photos. I figure if something should happen, I can either let my insurance agent see the photo set or finally do the spreadsheet.
(Also: Yes, I use Flickr. Because apparently it's 2002 in my online world.)
FIVE: Any and all advanced directives for medical care. "Advanced directives" is an umbrella term for the documents ranging from living wills to medical powers of attorney to do not resucitate (DNR) orders. You totally want to get your advanced directives set up, because you like your favorite people too much to drag them into a sequel to the Terri Schiavo nightmare. Advanced directives can be used to cover everything from pain management to life support to organ donation.
The National Hospice & Palliative Care Organization can hook you up with state-by-state forms for advanced directives. Download the form, fill it out, then leave copies with your primary health care provider and whomever you trust to make medical decisions on your behalf. Keep a copy for your important papers.
SIX: Any medical records that are vital to you or your loved one's ongoing care. This includes things like vaccination records, mostly, but if someone's got a serious or chronic condition, then you'll want to keep a dossier.
(For example: I had a benign tumor removed from my pituitary gland in '09; I keep all related records because doctors tend to want to know if you've had brain surgery.)
SEVEN: Tax documents from the last seven years. Although most personal finance types will tell you that you can shred all your tax-related paperwork after a three-year period, some do recommend holding on to the state and federal filing forms for several years, as you'll often need to produce them for loan applications or insurance purchases.
I picked "seven years" as my cut-off point for a wholly unrelated reason: Seven years is approximately how long a negative item stays on a credit report before falling off, so why not sync up all financial documentation to the same period?
EIGHT: Quarterly statements from all financial accounts. You don't have to save every statement -- we do live in the age of the online account management system. But keep the most recent ones, or print them off: It is often easier to find account numbers and contact information via a stack of paper than by clicking through a website that was designed to reflect a bank's internal organization more than to facilitate its customers' business.
NINE: All the documents that The Man can use to track you and your loved ones down, i.e. Social Security cards, birth certificates, marriage certificates. If you're in a "nontraditional" family, any legal agreements you have in place concerning adoption, custody or child support agreements. If you are divorced, include copies of your divorce decree and any settlements related to that.
TEN: A password recovery plan. Say your partner handles all the online banking and she's incapacitated. You'll need to take over -- so you'll need the user name and password for the account.
Be super-wary when syncing up all your vital accouts' user names and passwords in any kind of document, and do not, for the love of Frank, ever consider sticking that doc in Google Docs. You are basically asking for someone to hijack your life Mat Honan-style.
Here's what I'd do: Put a password manager on your computer (consider LastPass). Export your data from that password manager as a separate .CSV document, then password protect that. Then, on a slip of paper, write out the password for the password-protected file, seal it in an envelope, and tuck it next to your medical documents, with a small label reading "for online accounts."
Whomever opens the document can do so in a spreadsheet program and they'll have a tidy list of all your accounts by user name and password. But the offline/online process they'll have to use minimizes security risks.
Bonus electronic activity: Download and fill out this In-case-of-emergency doc that Lifehacker so thoughtfully put together. It's basically a streamlined version of your important papers for the very digitally inclined among us.
I know this is time consuming, so I've broken down the whole thing into a checklist that you can access via my shared Evernote notebook. Look for it as "Prep School: Checklist for getting your 'important papers' in order." I'd estimate that the time it takes to knock everything off the checklist ranges from 10 to 30 hours, depending on how (dis)organized you are and whether you have to do a home inventory. The good news is, you can work in ten to thirty minute chunks on most of this.
I know it also seems like a lot of paperwork. It's really not. See that stack of file boxes in the picture at the top? That's my household's paperwork for a family of three. So you really don't have to worry that all your important papers will take up a ton of space. A little pruning, a lot of scanning, and you'll be able to slide all your important papers onto one shelf of a bookcase. Good luck!