Keep Important Family Documents Safe and Searchable

Would you be able to grab your child’s birth certificate in a hurry? What about your home insurance policies? Family passports? Deeds to your property? Shot records for the family pooch? Keeping kids’ shoes, mittens and school projects organized is hard enough. Add insurance documents, financial statements and other important papers to the mix, and parents can find themselves scrambling.

This year, carve out some time to create a system for those valuable papers before you need vaccine records for camp or passports for your family’s spring break vacation. Finding a central location is the first step to getting your important documents organized.

“Store documents on the first or second floor of your home,” says Matt Blessing, archivist and curator of Special Collections and Manuscript Collections at Marquette University. “Avoid the attic and the basement,” Blessing adds, noting that paper documents are sensitive to heat and humidity and can become damaged in extreme conditions.

A fire safe, available at office supply stores, can be a good option for protecting important papers from unexpected circumstances. “If your home goes up in flames, the damage can actually come from water,” says Blessing, who recommends a fire safe with a lock and key for increased security.

A safety deposit box is another option for original paperwork as well as bulky valuables. A safety deposit box can be rented for an annual fee from many banks. However, not all branches offer safety deposit boxes. Consider easy accessibility and branch hours when shopping around for a location.

Creating a digital copy and saving documents on a CD can be another back-up option, but Blessing warns about the stability of this method. “CDs have a lifespan of five to 10 years, and some have been known to fail within three years. A magnetic field or a child’s toys can corrupt the disc,” he says.

While it can save wear and tear on an original paper document, Blessing suggests that a digitized document is just a copy. “Don’t view the second generation as your original archiveable copy.”

A secure Internet storage service is another choice for storing important information. Documents can be scanned or downloaded onto a computer file. Through a secured connection, they can then be saved to an online server and accessed by you anywhere you have Internet access. Lose your passport while traveling? You can sign in to your online back-up account and retrieve copies of your birth certificate, driver’s license or passport to help speed the recovery process. Before choosing an online storage service, read the privacy policy and choose a company with an established track record and credentials.

Sound like a big job? Setting up a safe, easily accessible system for your important documents may take a little time, but it can save you hours of searching in the future. Whichever system you use, follow these tips to make it most efficient:

– Add a list of names. Include names and contact information for quick reference, including family lawyers, adoption agencies, real estate agents, insurance agents, doctors and family friends.

– Make extra copies of documents. Gather files and take a trip to a copy center so you’ll have several copies of documents: one for long-term storage, the other for easy access. Make more than one copy of documents such as birth certificates, passports and immunization records that your family may need when applying for camp, school, a new job or travel.

– Note what’s inside files. Keep a list of where your important documents are filed, separated into long-term and frequently accessed categories. Make sure you update the list to reflect changes each time you update your files.

– Tell a trusted family member where files are stored. In case you are unable to access paperwork in an emergency, make sure someone outside your immediate family knows where your important documents are and how to access them.

– Ask professionals about their filing systems. Doctors, tax professionals, lawyers and insurance agents will have copies of your files. Ask how long files are kept in their office. If you relocate or change services, request a copy of your files.

– Review files once a year. Set aside some time each year to go over your filing system, double check the location of your important documents, and add any new paperwork if necessary. The start of a new year or tax time can be a good time to annually update your files.

Top-Priority Papers

Not sure which papers are important? Documents falling into the following categories should be stored in a safe place that is easily accessible:

* Family records: adoption records, birth certificates, death certificates, baptismal certificates, marriage licenses, divorce papers, citizenship and naturalization papers, passports, child custody agreements, immunization records and wills.
* Financial records: tax returns, health and life insurance information, stocks and bond information, receipts, social security cards, pay stubs and banking records.
* Property records: deeds, warranties, car titles, mortgage information,investment records and household inventories.

Sharon Cindrich Miller is a mother of two who writes frequently about parenting, technology and travel.

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