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Backing Up Important Documents

Although most of us don't like to think of a fire, flood or earthquake destroying our home and all of our possessions, the truth is that it can — and does — happen. And when you're caught up in the middle of a disaster, gathering all of your important documents is probably the last thing on your mind. But since you'll need these documents to get your affairs back in order after such an event, it's wise to store the originals and copies in one or more safe locations.

Filing folders labeled for a variety of sensitive documents.

Make Copies of Certain Documents

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) you should have the following documents available in case of an emergency:

  • Vital records. A wide variety of documents fits under this category, and you should make sure to have multiple copies of each of them: birth certificates, Social Security cards, adoption papers, passports, driver's licenses, state IDs, permanent resident cards and naturalization papers. Also include marriage certificates, divorce decrees, child custody papers, military IDs and military discharge forms.
  • Don't forget about family pets! You should make sure to have current photos, their ID chip numbers, as well as vaccination and medical records.
  • Property records. These include real estate deeds, mortgage documents, rental agreements, and vehicle and boat registrations. Take the time to create a household inventory list, and try to take and store photos of every item.
  • Insurance policies. Even if you have online accounts, print out policy information for health, life, auto, and homeowners or renters insurance. Don't forget to include any information on specialty insurance coverage, such as earthquake, flood or disability. Make sure you have contact numbers handy for each insurance company.
  • Medical documents. Health insurance ID cards, medical records, immunization records, medication lists, physician names and contact details should be copied and filed for each family member. Try to get a hold of dental records, too.
  • Estate planning documents. These include power of attorney documents, attorney names and contact details, trusts, wills and funeral instructions.
  • Financial documents. Save checking, savings and credit card account numbers. Include investment documents, retirement account and brokerage information, and stock and bond certificates. Also, having the first two pages of your federal and state tax returns for at least the previous year is a good idea.

Beyond Vital Documents

If disaster strikes, you may not have a working cellphone or access to a computer right away. Keep a printed list of important contacts and login details for your most important online accounts.

Documents aren't the only thing you should store safely. Remember to have a copy of the key to your safe-deposit box, an external hard-drive or flash drive to back-up important computer files, and printed photographs of each family member and important events, such as weddings.

Where to Store Documents

Now that you know which documents you need to keep track of and make copies of, where should you store them? It's advisable to keep all your original documents in a safe-deposit box, which you can usually rent at your bank on an annual basis. Alternatively, you can keep them in a fireproof lockbox or safe in your home, but keep in mind that the box would still be vulnerable during a flood or earthquake.

Leave copies with a trusted family member or friend, or with your attorney if you have one. It's also advisable to scan or take photos of documents, then save them to USB flash drives. Keep one drive in your safe-deposit box or fireproof safe, and keep another in a safe location away from your home. You can also create a digital archive to back-up your documents to a cloud. Keep in mind that cyber security is critical - your account should only be accessible to you and should include multistep authentication.

When disaster strikes, you want to be prepared. By gathering your important documentation together and storing both the originals and copies in safe locations, you'll have one less thing to worry about — allowing you to better focus on getting your life back in order and caring for loved ones.

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