Managing important personal documents is a practice that can be critical in an emergency. This article provides some methods and techniques for identifying, organizing, storing and retrieving important documents. Hurricanes, wildfires and floods are among the causes to force people to evacuate their homes. Having important documents ready to transport or copied at an alternate location can make recovery after an emergency a little smoother.
As I am writing this article, flash floods ruined homes, businesses and displaced 300 people in my town. The county and state government are offering to provide copies of Driver’s license, car registrations and other documents for people affected by the flood. It is my sincerest hope that people will read this article and avoid some of the problems caused by floods.
Where to store copies of documents
Using the list below as a starting point, identify the documents that can cause problems, if an event destroyed them or made them unavailable. Copy the important documents. It may be helpful to keep them in multiple formats, e.g., hardcopy, CD, USB drive, etc. In some cases, if may be appropriate to store the originals in a different location. Some people keep important documents in a (bank) safe deposit box. As your circumstances change, maintain the document copies. When you sell your car, or purchase a new one, store and copy the title and other important related documents. Add the new documents to the other ones.
Sometimes, people like to keep old and obsolete documents, for future reference. If you keep old and obsolete documents, it would be easier to manage if they are separated from current documents. One method for managing obsolete documents is to keep them in a separate envelope.
Look beyond the drawer with all your “important papers”. Make a list and take photos/images of everything in your wallet or purse. Having that information could be useful, if you lose your wallet or purse. This information can be stored with your other document copies, but will likely change more frequently. Be sure to keep this information updated. In a recent fire at a library, some of the workers lost their purses. Having copies of the important items would have reduced their recovery effort and stress.
Copy the birth certificates of everyone in your family. Copies aren’t always accepted, but it can be helpful in getting a replacement. The birth certificate and Social Security card are used by many government offices to determine your identity. Having copies in an emergency may be useful. AI passport, can be used instead of the birth certificate and Social Security card (both together) for identity.
Make a copy of the page with your photo and identification information. A copy won’t replace a passport but it makes getting a replacement easier. If you are traveling in a different country and lose or damage your passport, having a copy is helpful. In some cases having the copy emailed or faxed will expedite the replacement process.
Having a copy of your driver’s license is comforting. When a fire prompted the immediate evacuation of my wife’s office, her purse was unavailable for a couple days. Her driver’s license was in her purse.
Fortunately, her purse was recoverable. If it was damaged or destroyed, she could have used the copy until getting an official replacement. Be aware that some scanners or copiers will not allow you to copy some things like driver’s licenses and paper money. You may need to take a photo of it.
Social Security Card
Like most of the documents listed here, this won’t be a permanent replacement, but it is good to have a copy until you can get an official replacement.
Your attorney will likely have a copy of your last will and testament, but it’s prudent to have your own back-up copies. As you make changes to your will, be sure to make copies.
Having copies of adoption documents can be welcome during an emergency situation, to prove that you are the legal guardian of minors.
Having a copy of your marriage license can be useful in an emergency. This is especially important if your name was changed due to marriage.
Having copies of divorce records with custody orders can be needed in an emergency situation. This can be helpful if traveling with a child that may have their travel restrictions challenged.
In the event that you cannot get to your home or the location with your financial account information, having a list of your accounts and contact information is useful. Having this information compiled can be risky. You may want to encrypt phone numbers, accounts, and passwords.
A primitive encryption technique is to select a key. This is a number that will be added by the person who is encoding the phone number, account or password. To encode the phone number, account or password, add the key. The receiver must know the key to decode the phone number, account or password. This technique can be used to encrypt other relevant account information.
The above example is simple and may not be appropriate for all number encoding conditions. Other encryption techniques can be adopted. That is a topic for another article.
Some financial information that you may want to include:
- Broker information
- Bank information
- Credit card information
- Automatic payment information
- Mutual fund information
- Car titles
- Boat titles
- Trailer titles
- Gun purchase receipts
- Inventory of personal property
It is rare for people to have a personal property inventory, but really helpful in filing insurance claims
- Care directive
- Immunization records
- List of operations and procedures
- List of special needs and conditions
- Doctor contact information
- Medical doctors
- Estate administrator
- Co-signers on loans
- People that you have co-signed
- Family tree
- Directory of your personal contact - don't depend on digital storage, like phones
Business - Professional
- Insurance agent
Most educational documents can be replaced. It’s good to have copies of them in your personal document package. Some educational documents that you may want to include are:
Below is a link to a template for managing your accounts and passwords. It is a MS Word document. There are conflicting positions on storing your account information in one location. I have used this technique for over twenty years. It is important to add a password to the protect the document.
You can also use an encryption technique for protecting each account number and password. An encryption technique is included above, in the Financial Documents section. Having this information has proven to be useful. It is especially welcome when you need to access an account that you haven’t used for several months. If something incapacitates you, this can help someone that you trust manage your accounts.
By Roger Eaton
Over thirty years of experience in information technology and over seventeen years of experience in emergency services converged to inspire Eaton to the develop Prep Smartz, emergency management software and Prep Smartz Academy.