Document Storage Tips to Prepare for an EmergencyLike it or not, sometimes our lives are ruled by pieces of paper. In an emergency situation, the last thing you want to do is scramble to find some important file that you need to take with you, and if a disaster such as a fire or flood strikes, you don’t want to go through replacing a dozen documents you need to get your life back on track. Thankfully, a little bit of planning and organization can spare you a massive headache if you know proper document storage. Keep reading to learn what kinds of documents you should preserve, and the best ways to preserve them.

Which documents are storage-worthy?

Keeping utility bills and bank deposit slips around for a few months can be useful, but if you try to save every single one that you get, you’ll be overwhelmed with paper. That’s why you need to distinguish which documents are important enough to store, and which ones are just convenient to have around. Important documents generally have some kind of major financial or legal power. Here is a list of examples.

Identification: Some government-issued identification, such as social security cards, birth certificates and passports, can be vital to prove your identity after an emergency, and are a pain to replace. That goes double if you’re an immigrant, as applications for replacement green cards can actually be denied for a variety of reasons. Servicemen and women should also store their military ID and military discharge forms. Identification extends to documents that prove your relationship to someone else as well, such as adoption papers, child custody papers, marriage licenses and divorce decrees. Finally, if you have pets, you should keep medical and vaccination records for them just in case they’re separated from you or need care.

Property records: These are documents that prove ownership or value for significant major assets, such as real estate deeds of trust, mortgage documents, vehicle titles and copies of vehicle registration. Even if you don’t own a home, you’ll want to save a copy of your signed rental or lease agreement so you have your own record of your housing terms. If you have had anything professionally appraised, you should also save the appraisal documents so you don’t have to pay for a re-appraisal.

Financial documents: Wills, powers of attorney, proof of benefits papers and disability documentation are all important things to keep so you can claim any money that rightfully belongs to you. Insurance policy contracts are also helpful things to have in an emergency, so you can see whether your policy covers your situation or not. If you don’t think you need the full contracts, at the very least, you should keep a list of policy numbers and insurance company contact information in your document storage. You also should keep several years of filed tax returns, as tax penalties can be steep if the IRS finds an irregularity. The IRS itself recommends keeping at least your past three years of filed tax returns in most circumstances, though if you have not filed any returns or filed fraudulent returns, you should keep all of your tax records for as long as you can.

Document storage options

For important documents, you shouldn’t just keep everything in a drawer or a folder. Instead, you’ll want to invest in some protective document storage, so your files can survive a fire, natural disaster or burglary. On that front, there are two serious options: safe deposit boxes and fireproof safes.

Safe deposit boxes seem like the best solution, since banks have a lot of protection and local branches are generally trustworthy, but they have some pretty distinct downsides. First, safe deposit boxes are only accessible during bank hours, so if you need a document in a pinch, you may not be able to get it. Also, if the renter of a safe deposit box passes away, there are specific rules governing who can take the contents of the box without a court order. Second, unlike the money in your bank account, the contents of safe deposit boxes are not insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the bank is not liable for theft or damage to the box. Finally, banks charge fees for safe deposit boxes, which add up over time. Renting a small box for only few years could several hundred dollars. Safe deposit boxes are good for certain types of document storage, most notably for property documents, wills and birth certificates, as well as storing valuables such as jewelry or small family heirlooms, but they aren’t the ultimate storage solution.

For documents you want to have at the ready, such as your passport, you’re probably better off getting a fireproof safe. Getting your own safe ensures you have access to the contents whenever you need them, and gives you control over your safe’s features, such as size and protection rating. While a good safe can cost a few hundred dollars, it’s a cost you’ll only have to pay once, unlike the rental fee of a safe deposit box. As an added bonus, if you have homeowners or apartment renter’s insurance, your policy may cover the contents of a safe you keep at home.

There are some downsides to fireproof safes, though, the first of which being the decreased security against thieves compared to a safe deposit box. A thief could force you to open your home safe and steal what’s inside, or just take the entire thing if it’s light and small enough. If you have digital or magnetic media, such as audio tapes or flash drives, you’ll also need to make sure you get a safe specially rated to protect them against heat damage. Many fireproof safes have a maximum internal temperature of 400 degrees Fahrenheit since paper doesn’t burn until 451 degrees, but temperatures that high will ruin most recorded media. Instead, you’ll need a safe with a maximum internal temperature of 125 degrees Fahrenheit, or 72 degrees if you’re storing computer disks or drives. Lastly, it can be a drag to have to take care of a big and heavy safe, especially if you move frequently or live in a small space.

Regardless of which storage option you choose, you should consider organizing your documents by putting them in a three-ring binder with plastic document sheets, so they stay flat, legible and in order. You may also want to put the entire binder inside an extra large resealable plastic bag, which will help keep your files resistant against flooding. To find more about keeping your affairs neat, tidy and safe, follow our personal finance blog.