Organizing and Storing Important Documents

We typically evacuate with the hope that our homes will still be in perfect standing when we return. Many people will be blessed to return to untouched homes, others to damaged ones, and some unfortunately to nothing more than rubble.

The last thing you want to be doing after an emergency is to have to start your life from absolute zero. With your important documents in hand, the process of rebuilding your future will be much quicker and less stressful.

The list we’ve provided may look long and tedious to most but if you’re ever faced with a mandatory evacuation order, you won’t have to worry about scrambling around your home looking for these papers. It’s also much easier to find these vital documents if you know they’re stored in the same place.


Which documents should I save?


Keeping your documents organized is key to finding them when you really need them. The checklist below will help you get your paperwork organized.

Remember to take account of each person and pet living in your home. Some people would prefer to organize their documents by using separate folders for each member of the household since it could make it easier to retrieve documents.

Whichever way you choose to do it, these documents can be broken down into 8 sections: 

  • Personal
  • Pets
  • Real estate and personal property
  • Estate planning
  • Business
  • Medical
  • Financial
  • Government

I recommend filing them in their appropriate section because it will save you much time and stress when you need to retrieve them in the future.


Action Step

Print the important documents checklist found below.

Spend an afternoon or two going through your paperwork and setting aside all the items on the list that apply to you.

Be sure to keep these documents in their respective categories for easy retrieval.


Important documentsClick to download checklist

How should I store my important documents?


There are several ways to store your documents, such as paper copies, digitally, and on the Cloud.

When an emergency strikes, you may not be able to access paper copies but it would help tremendously to have them on a flash drive or on your phone. On the other hand, during the process of recovery, some insurance companies or government agencies may require that you present paper copies instead of digital ones. For these reasons, we recommend saving them in more than one way.


Keep paper copies


It’s recommended that you store two copies of all your paperwork, in case one gets damaged or you’re unable to retrieve it. Store the original documents in one location and copies of the originals in another. You may choose to store all the originals in your bank’s safe deposit box (for security reasons, of course) and the copies in a fireproof lock box hidden (yet accessible to you) in your house.

You can organize all paper copies in:

  • A binder
  • An expanding or hard case file box
  • An archival storage box with labeled color card stock paper used as separators
  • A file cabinet with hanging file folders
  • A desktop document tray file holder

Store digital copies


I recommend scanning the documents to your laptop or desktop, and backing them up on an external hard drive or USB flash drive. Since these documents contain private information, we suggest adding a layer of security by uploading them to a password-protected folder.


Save them on the cloud


Thanks to the incredible advancements in technology, there are ways to store your documents in an online password protected program. Many people use a Cloud-based service, like Google Drive, iCloud or Dropbox, but you should encrypt your documents prior to uploading them. This is a very handy option if you’re away from home when an evacuation occurs or in an immediate situation when you don’t have enough time to grab any valuables.

Google claims that anything uploaded to Google Drive is safe and secure but you will have to use your best judgment about what information you store there, as well as when using any other Cloud storage service.

To facilitate the process of scanning documents to the Cloud or an external hard drive, you can choose from several apps. Note that each app has different functionalities, so you’ll have to decide which one works best for you. The following are some great options to start:

  • For iPhone and iPad, you can use CamScanner (free), Genius Scan (free), Scanner App (free) or Scanner Pro ($3.99).
  • For Android, you can use Microsoft Office Lens (free), Adobe Scan (free), Tiny Scanner (free), Document Scanner (free), or CamScanner (free).

Most of the free services include a Pro version at an extra cost but for basic scanning, it might not be necessary to purchase them.

Once again, it’s up to you to decide whether or not the Cloud is safe enough for your private and personal documents. I can only say it’s an easy way to access what you need right from your phone…that is, if you have access to the internet!


Action Step

Make a copy of all the original documents you’ve gathered from the checklist. Determine how (and where) you will save the original paperwork and how (and where) you will save the copies. Purchase a binder, file folders, or your preferred storage box to organize your documents.

Then, scan each document and save them digitally, whether that is on a USB drive, an external hard drive, or on the Cloud.

Finally, store all of your documents in a safe place and update them as necessary.


How can I protect my paper documents?


At the bank


A lot of people decide to store their important documents in a safe at their local bank. While this can be a great idea, you have to consider the possibility of banks closing early during emergencies. If you’re about to evacuate and want to stop by the bank on your way out, there’s no guarantee that it will be open. In the event of an immediate evacuation, there’s almost no chance that you’ll have access to your bank’s safe.


At home


There are other people who choose to keep their documents at home. This can also present some challenges. For one, if your home ever gets robbed, your valuable documents are vulnerable to getting stolen. If you keep your documents in a safe, it can work well against thieves, but it might not stand a chance against mother nature.

When I served during the disaster relief of the Camp Fire in Paradise, CA, I noticed that most homeowners owned a safe. Of all the homes that burned down, not one safe remained intact. Some safes held up their shape but the contents inside were charred beyond repair. In one case, the homeowner kept ammunition, black powder, and guns, as well as his paper documents and expensive jewelry inside the safe. Due to the excess heat from the fire, the 5-foot safe literally exploded open! As you can imagine, the contents inside were no longer salvageable.

Most home safes are specially designed to withstand high temperatures (fireproof) and some also claim to be waterproof. This is true to a degree. Since safes are built from different materials, they will differ in regards to their temperature and water limits. Learning what the different safe ratings mean before buying a safe.


Underground


If you have your own backyard, or a large property, you may want to consider burying the original copies of your documents. Of course, you will have to consider the challenges this poses as well, such as the probability of moisture in the dirt and the possibility of mold growing on the paper. To prevent this, you’ll want to place your documents in waterproof bags and seal them in a water-tight container. This option might not be the best for those who live in flood and landslide-prone areas, as well as for those who do not own their property.


How do I replace vital documents?


Reporting lost documents


Before you begin the process of recovering lost documents, you should report the loss. The copy of the filed report may safeguard you against fines in the future. To report missing, destroyed, or lost documents, call your government’s non-emergency phone number (dial 311 if you’re in the United States).

This number connects you with government organizations. Depending on which document you need to replace, you may be put in touch with various organizations.


Recovering lost documents


Vital records, such as your birth, death, and marriage certificates are issued and maintained by government authorities. These documents can be replaced directly through a county clerk, registrar’s office, vital records office, and by submitting a request online.

If you need to replace documents that are not considered vital records, you may need to request them directly from the organization who issued or authorized them originally. In some cases, you can order them online or go through a third-party and have them put in the request for you.

For example:

  • Driver’s license or state ID cards: Contact your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.
  • Social security card: Contact your local social security office.
  • Credit cards: Call your credit card company.

If you’re living overseas, or are a foreigner living in the United States, you may need to contact your country’s embassy or consulate first.


* IMPORTANT REMINDER: If you’ve lost your home due to a disaster, you will need to apply for a mailbox at your nearest post office. Then, update your address so that all your replacement documents are sent to the new address. Remember to have your old mail forwarded to this new address as well.


Next up: Securing and protecting yourself, your home, and your finances

Continue >>