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Safeguarding Important Documents During a Disaster (Part 2)

Where to Keep Your Important Papers

Natural or man-made disasters can destroy a home – inside and out — in the blink of an eye. This is the middle of hurricane season, and living on the East Coast, even inland, you are likely to experience at least one storm each year.  Flooding and high winds can be an issue any time of the year. In addition to natural disasters, house fires, water damage from broken or burst pipes and burglaries can cause us to lose valuables, including important legal papers.

Keeping your important documents can save you thousands of dollars and immeasurable time after a loss. In our latest article, we shared a list of papers you should keep. Today we we’re giving you 6 tips on where to store them.

Generally speaking, you have six places to choose from when deciding where to keep your papers:

  1. Wallet – You are, obviously, very limited in what you can keep in such a small space. Most important is identification — some form of government-issued ID, such as a driver’s license. Also keep your military ID if you have one, your medical insurance card, physician contact information, and any important prescription information. Carry photos of your family members and pets — they will improve your chances of being reunited if you become separated.
  2. Safe Deposit Box – You can rent a safe deposit at your bank or credit union for a small annual fee. A safe deposit box provides a high level of security. Even if the bank is affected by the same disaster you are, it is likely the vault would remain standing. It also gives you a safe place to keep non-document valuables, such as jewelry. On the other hand, a safe deposit box can be inconvenient if you want to access its contents frequently or at times when the bank is closed. It can also be problematic if you keep things in the box that you might need immediately after a disaster because the bank may be inaccessible. When deciding what to store in your safe deposit box, choose originals of items you are unlikely to need immediately and that are difficult or impossible to replace. One thing that should not be stored in a safe deposit box is the original or only copy of your will because the box may be “sealed” upon your death. Place a copy of your will and any instructions in the box.
  3. Home Box – The box you keep at home should be fireproof, lockable, and light enough for you to carry. This is a good place to keep either originals or copies of things you might need immediate access to. It’s also a good choice for records that must be updated frequently, that could be replaced if necessary, or that are too bulky to store in a safe deposit box. The disadvantages of a home box are that it can be stolen, and that it could be inaccessible if your home were destroyed or became off-limits while you were away.  Store all contents of your home box, including a copy of your will, in sealed plastic bags so they cannot be damaged by water. If you have a safe deposit box, keep one of the keys here, too.
  4. Attorney – If an attorney has prepared legal documents for you, he or she will, typically, keep a set of originals. You may also be able to have your attorney keep your funeral or other instructions and your second safe deposit box key, if that is your preference.
  5. Out-of-Area Friend or Relative – Keeping copies of important papers with a trusted person who does not live close to you is a good way to avoid having all your records affected by a regional disaster, such as a hurricane. Bear in mind, however, that you will not have immediate access to anything kept here.  This may also be a good place to keep your second safe deposit box key, along with the box location and a list of its contents, the names and numbers of your attorney and executor, and any instructions you wish to provide.
  6. Online or Digital Storage – Technology provides some excellent tools for safeguarding your important documents. It also makes it easier to access your records when you need to, and more convenient to update them.

Here are a few tech tools to consider when deciding how to store and access your important information:

  • Cell phone or PDA. Always keep your most important phone numbers with you by programming them into your cellular phone or personal digital assistant (PDA), or by storing them on a flash drive you keep with you.
  • Online bill-pay.Receiving and paying your bills online makes it possible to stay current even if you can’t receive your mail and don’t have your checkbook. All the major banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions offer this service. You can also set up an auto-payment arrangement directly with many merchants and service providers and set up direct deposit for your paycheck.
  • USB flash drive.Also known as thumb drives for their small size, these portable hard drives offer a lot of storage space in a little package. Copy all your important computer files onto the flash drive and keep it with you. They’re inexpensive, so you could buy a second one to keep in your safe deposit box or with a friend or relative. Be sure to get one that allows password protection, in case you lose the flash drive.
  • Digital camera and photo website.For insurance purposes, use a digital camera or camcorder to take photos or video of your cars, home, furnishings, and valuables. In addition to making any copies you want on CD or DVD, you can also upload your photos or video to one of the many photo storage websites, such as Flickr, at Online storage is often free.
  • Instead of making multiple paper copies of each important document, you could convert them (and photos) to PDFs (portable document format, a type of electronic file) using a scanner. Then upload the files so that they’re accessible from any computer. You can also burn the files to a CD or DVD and store them or copy them onto a USB flash drive.
  • Personal web space.Some online storage is provided free with many email accounts. Use your space to upload PDFs of important documents you’ve scanned. You can also pay for personal Web space if you need more. Make sure access requires a password.
  • Online fax service.These services allow you to fax yourself important records. The faxes arrive as email attachments that you can burn to disc, upload, or copy onto a flash drive.
  • Online password manager.Various sites and software allow you to store your usernames and passwords. You only have to remember one master password to access the list. To find such tools, do a Google search for “online password management.” Or create a master list using a word processing or spreadsheet program that allows you to password-protect the document. Then store that document on your password-protected flash drive. If you want to, you can keep a copy of your list in your safe deposit box. Or you can give the list, or the password to access it online, to a trusted friend or relative.

Accessing these papers quickly and easily after any disaster is as important as creating the documents.  Disaster can strike in an instant. Don’t put it off.  Safeguard your documents before it’s too late.

If you need legal assistance in managing an estate, trust or other elder law issue, the Law Office of Scott C. Painter can help. We specialize in elder law issues ranging from nursing home planning, guardianship, wills, trusts, estates, veteran’s benefits, and other related legal matters. A call to us is free, and the best advice is to act now to educate yourself and your options. Waiting to seek legal counsel may limit your options and be costly. Call now for your free consultation 610-378-5140 or visit for more information.