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How To Keep Documents Safe – Storing Important Documents Best practices for physical and electronic storage for identification, health records, legal documents, and more
Life gets a lot easier if you keep important documents like your passport, birth certificate, and vaccination records handy, but there’s no one “right” way to store them. You know your needs and life circumstances best, so use the “why” of stocking to inform the “how.” Examples of causes could be:
How To Keep Documents Safe
Best practices combine physical storage (safe, safety deposit box, etc.), cloud, and thumb drive/external hard drive. This guide explains which documents to keep and takes you through the various storage options.
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Some of them can be digitized, but keep the original birth certificate or a certified copy. Really, go over the original along with whatever document proves your identity (passport, driver’s license, military ID, social security card, etc.). Original documents also help prove your legal status or relationship to someone else (adoption papers, child custody papers, etc.).
Otherwise, important documents to maintain fall into six categories. The exact number increases or decreases slightly, depending on who you ask.
Don’t put all your eggs (originals and copies) in one basket. Otherwise, you risk losing everything at once.
Scenario: John uses his thumb drive to make copies of important documents. He keeps the originals and thumb drive in his fireproof and watertight home.
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The problem: A particularly nasty fire destroys the contents of the safe. John loses his originals and copies.
Two alternatives: cloud storage plus thumb drive storage; Store the thumb drive in a separate place such as a bank deposit box
Proceed with caution if you make (or obtain) copies of personal identification documents such as your birth certificate and social security card.
Pro tip: Speaking of identity theft, it’s important to protect yourself from identity theft with one of the top-rated identity theft protection services. Check out the Identity Guard or IdentityForce plans, two of our favorite providers. As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!
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Here’s a look at the different options for physical storage. They include fireproof safes, safety deposit boxes and filing cabinets.
As Nick Guy with Wirecutter explains, “Document safes are meant to provide protection from fire, water, and, to some extent, theft, for people who want to keep their important belongings secure in the office or at home. They’re best for important documents — like passports or birth certificates – or small items like hard drives or USB devices. Most people can find a good use for a fireproof safe, whether they want to prepare for travel or major financial transactions or just want to add an extra layer of security to a drive full of precious photos.”
You have a few options for moving forward with document protection. One is to use plastic page slips to protect against wear, liquid spills, or sunlight (often when documents are outside the safe). You can even put these documents in a 3-ring binder to flee faster in the event of disaster – more on that soon.
Another option is to keep documents in fire and water resistant bags inside the safe. The bags themselves provide protection from fire and water but not as much as safe. However, when combined, they provide another layer of defense. It’s also easy to get a quick exit before disaster strikes.
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If you drive a lot with documents in the car; When there is a high chance of upcoming emergencies or disasters; When combined with a safety deposit box or safe as another layer of defense against fire and water
We’ve already touched on fire and water resistant bags, so we won’t repeat it too often. It must be said that banks that move cash and sensitive documents put them in these types of bags. Otherwise, the goodies can catch fire if a fiery collision occurs.
Fireproof bags do not provide the same level of protection as fireproof safes, so combine them with another storage method when possible.
Some bags are very small while others are much larger. One of the large bags (brand BLOKKD) offers a 30-minute fire rating to 1300 degrees Fahrenheit and features locking zippers to keep children out.
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Folders are easy to include in grab bags (also called go-bags or protective bags). If your area is likely to be evacuated soon due to a hurricane, fire, or earthquake, for example, insert your most important documents in the cover file. They are ready to go in a hurry.
Don’t feel comfortable keeping documents in a briefcase? Combine binder and stash for easy transfer to your go bag.
It can be part of an overall stocking strategy; If you have no qualms about paying your rent on time; If home security or disasters are an issue
Unfortunately, safe deposit boxes are not as safe as you think. In fact, Jerry Pluard, president of a Chicago company that insures safe boxes, estimates that about 33,000 safe boxes are damaged annually from accidents, natural disasters, and thefts.
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However, the odds of your items remaining intact are in your favor. (Remember to pay your rent on time!) Safe deposit boxes remain a relatively good bet for storing many types of important documents, including:
Use a home safe or other accessible storage method for passports. Do this even if you don’t travel out of the country frequently. Why give up a spur of the moment trip just because of bank hours?
Safe deposit boxes do not provide 100% protection in the event of a massive flood, so put your documents in waterproof bags (also called fireproof bags) or zip-top plastic bags. If you also store jewelry and high-value items, know that FDIC insurance does not apply. Get home insurance or a rider policy to cover these items.
Tell your attorney and/or heirs about the safety deposit box so they know how to access it in the event of your death. Fortunately, you can have a co-signer with the same powers that you retain, but a general lack of access is why a living will, permanent power of attorney, health care proxy, or your original will should not be stored in a safe deposit box. These documents are of little use if no one has access to them.
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Physical file systems serve as another layer in storing documents, especially for financial and legal documents. They provide more space and organization, but in the long run, you may prefer an external hard drive and/or the cloud. There is less chance of theft and less physical paperwork for you to file.
However, if it’s something tax-related, keep the originals whenever possible (it’s okay to make copies). For example, original gas receipts are more reliable than digital photos of receipts.
Many file cabinets are not fire and water resistant. Some are, though — you just have to make a point to buy them. (Don’t expect the first filing cabinet you see at your local office supply store to be fireproof.) Check the UL rating and ETL rating for electronic media.
The following solutions are not necessarily best practices, but they are common enough. In some situations, they make perfect sense. Just know what you’re likely to be involved in.
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Thanks to the advent of home safes, it is less common these days for your attorney to store estate planning papers, original wills, and other legal documents. Firms such as Gudorf Law in Ohio recommend that clients use a safe box or fireproof box to store these documents. The company scans and makes copies which can be accessed via the online client portal.
One major downside to storing documents in your attorney’s office: They can fall through the cracks if your attorney (or even someone else in the practice) retires, dies, or leaves.
However, you may have reasons to store the papers in your attorney’s office. Perhaps you don’t trust your family, or your home has been broken into several times. Talk to your attorney about how documents are stored and whether there is a written policy about their retention and disposal. Remember to tell your executor where to store the will.
Some states such as Ohio allow you to keep your original will (and trust documents) in the probate court judge’s office.
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Some fake books are hollow, without a locking mechanism. Others have locks and double as safes. Either type lets you store important documents in plain sight, whether the fake book is in your bedroom, office, or college dorm room.
Fake books are very portable but don’t expect to protect your documents in a fire or flood. Thieves can spot them easily enough, too.
Many non-portable safes such as wall safes, concealed safes, and built-in safes offer fire and water resistance but double check their UL (Underwriters Laboratories) rating for security. You want at least 30 minutes of protection in a fire up to 550 degrees Fahrenheit.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with non-portable safes, per se. They are not only necessary if you are looking for a document storage solution. Load up for more variety and less difficulty.
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One more thing: many non-portable safes can be carried out of your home by determined thieves. They are not as safe as you think. Try to store your documents separately from high-value items.
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