When was the last time you couldn't find an important paper you knew you had carefully put away? How do people decide where to store and keep such records? And how do they know what to keep, what to throw away, and when? Do you have a simple system or roadmap for important papers (PDF |download Adobe Reader) to which you or a loved one can refer to in case of an emergency?
Every household must work out its own records management system, but some general guidelines can help. A good system will provide an overview of what happens to property after a major life event occurs.
First, gather your important papers and important documents from throughout your home. Put these documents into three piles: an active file, dead storage, and items to discard or shred. The active file should include documents and financial records you deal with on a regular basis and need to refer to. Keep these readily accessible at home:
- Appliance manuals, warranties and service contracts
- Bank statements
- Bill payment receipts
- Bills awaiting payment
- Credit card information
- Education records, diploma, transcripts, etc.
- Employment records
- Family health records, including vaccination histories
- Health benefit information
- Household inventory
- Income tax working papers
- Insurance policies
- Loan statements and payment books
- Password list
- Receipts for items under warranty
- Safe deposit box inventory (and key)
- Tax receipts, such as those received for charitable deductions
All active file papers over 3-years-old are considered dead storage. This may not necessarily apply to everything—for example, appliance manuals that you use frequently should stay in the active file.
Items to Discard
- Cancelled checks for cash or nondeductible expenses
- Expired warranties
- Pay stubs, after reconciling with W-2
- Other records no longer needed, such as those that were replaced by newer versions, manuals of appliances that you've replaced, etc.
How Long to Keep Documents
|Document||How Long to Keep It|
|Bank statements||1 year, unless needed to support tax filings|
|Birth certificates, marriage licenses, divorce decrees, passports, education records, military service records||Forever|
|Credit card records||Until paid, unless needed to support tax filings|
|Home purchase and improvement records||As long as you own the property|
|Household inventory||Forever; update as needed|
|Insurance, car, home, etc.||Until you renew the policy|
|Investment statements||Shred your monthly statements; keep annual statements until you sell the investments|
|Investment certificates||Until you cash or sell the item|
|Loan documents||Until you sell the item the loan was for|
|Real estate deeds||As long as you own the property|
|Receipts for large purchases||Until you sell or discard the item|
|Service contracts and warranties||Until you sell or discard the item|
|Social Security card||Forever|
|Social Security statement||When you get your new statement online, shred the old one|
|Tax records||7 years from the filing date|
|Vehicle titles||Until you sell or dispose of the car|
Create Your Filing System
Generally, your home file should include all the items you refer to frequently including bills, warranties, bank statements, etc. You’ll also need a secondary storage location for your more important, difficult to replace papers, such as passports, vehicle titles, birth certificates, etc. A fireproof/waterproof safe may be one possibility, but it's better to store those records in a location away from home, such as a bank safe deposit box.
Organize your home filing system (PDF | download Adobe Reader) in a way that you can understand and manage. Choose one member of your household as file manager who will take responsibility for keeping the filing up-to-date and consistent. However, in case of an emergency, everyone in the household needs to be familiar with the system, including children old enough to understand how to use it. Develop and stick to a regular filing and paperwork schedule to avoid having to deal with backlogged papers. A few minutes once or twice a week should be sufficient.
Consider scanning and storing some documents electronically since it's best to save your important documents and files in a way that can easily be carried away and accessed later. Scanning will give you easy access to your documents and allow you to transfer them via e-mail and easily make back-up copies. Investing in an external hard drive for your computer and regularly backing up important documents will allow you to carry away the external hard drive at a moment's notice.
If you don’t have the time or the desire to take these steps, or have realized that the task is too much to handle, consider asking a friend or family member to help you focus and give a fresh perspective. Or, you may want to consider hiring a professional organizer to provide structure, solutions, and systems, and help you gain a sense of control.
Safe Deposit Box
Once you have organized your documents, you’ll want to consider getting an off-site storage location, such as a safe deposit box. Use the safe deposit box for originals, but remember, you'll still need copies at home if something tragic should happen to you and your safe deposit box gets sealed. Always seal documents stored in a safe deposit box in airtight waterproof containers (like Ziploc bags) to ensure they don’t get damaged. If you'd rather keep your records at home, then get a fireproof/waterproof safe. A good rule of thumb is: Put documents in the box if you can't easily replace them or if you don't know what might happen if you don't have them.
If applicable, you should have official or certified copies of documents for your safe deposit box. "Official" means an original copy with all required signatures. Select documents, such as birth certificates, must also be certified or notarized to be considered valid. You can get most government records for free or at low cost from a government office or online at a government agency's website. If you are unsure whether you need a certified copy, or want more information about which local government office can give you originals of these documents, contact your local consumer protection office. Consult your attorney before you put an original copy of your will in a safe deposit box—some states don’t permit access after a person dies.
If you need to obtain documents regarding birth, death, marriage, or divorce, check out Where to Write for Vital Records for guidance. Be wary of companies that offer to sell you copies of official papers; you should check with the appropriate government agency to see if they will provide the same information free or at a lower price.
Consider keeping copies of the following documents in a safe deposit box or locked in a fireproof/waterproof safe in your home:
- Adoption papers
- Advance directives*
- Birth and death certificates
- Citizenship papers
- Contracts of importance
- Deeds and property titles
- Household inventory
- Life insurance policies
- Marriage licenses and divorce decrees
- Military discharge papers
- Powers of attorney*
- Social Security cards
- Stock and bond certificates
*Since the safe deposit box will be sealed at your death, keep a copy of your will somewhere accessible. The same goes for the advance directive and powers of attorney since you may not be able to give others access to the safe deposit box.
Grab and Go Kit for Emergencies
Disasters like floods, fires, earthquakes, and tornadoes strike without warning and can affect anyone. Your number one priority in these situations is making sure your family is safe—not finding your most recent copies of insurance policies or bank statements. An easy-to-grab emergency financial records kit (PDF | download Adobe Reader) will make sure you have access to important documents in case the unexpected happens to you.
What Documents Should You Have Ready?
Store the documents in an accordion file and keep it in your emergency supply kit so that everything you need is together. Items you should put in the kit include originals or copies of:
- Birth and marriage certificates, divorce decrees
- Social Security cards of household members
- Driver's license and other wallet cards
- Will and/or trust documents; powers of attorney
- Recent income tax return
- Passports and/or other identity documents
- Military discharge papers
- A list of your prescriptions: name of medication, dosage, pharmacy
Other important papers include:
- Contacts for family members, employer, financial advisors, attorney, accountant, and banker
- Insurance policy information
- Bank, credit union, and credit card account list
- Summary of personal, financial, property, and other vital information
Other items to consider including:
- Safe deposit box keys and/or safe combination
- Computer user names and passwords; CD with relevant personal, financial, legal files
- Some emergency cash
Remember that these documents contain personal information like social security numbers and bank account information that could be used against you if it fell into the wrong hands. Be sure your emergency financial records kit is stored in a secure location in your home so it is easy for you to carry away in a disaster not for a thief to carry away in a robbery.