VITAL-LEGAL-DOCUMENTS[1]Finding key documents can be trying and laborious under the best circumstances, even with plenty of notice, such as tax time every year. Finding important documents under stress, or worse, having to have someone else sort through the entirety of the paperwork you have hoarded after an emergency, death or other crisis, is often impossible. This is the list of the most essential legal and financial paperwork that you should be able to lay your hands on or instruct others to easily find.

You should have the following bare-bones documents available and accessible:

  1. Passports.  Make sure they are current and useable. If your child is off on a summer abroad and gets hurt, it will certainly be the wrong time to discover that your passport is expired (true story) and that you have to wait for the government office to reopen for your passport to be processed.
  2. Copies of other identification.  Have available a driver’s license, social security card, certified copy of your birth certificate or other legal forms of identification.  These documents are often required to obtain other documents.
  3. Insurance policies.  Life, Property, Liability, and Health are the four most basic key areas of insurance.  Having a copy of these actual policies is key in successfully demanding service, coverage and in enforcing the actual contract if required. Similarly, health insurance cards are often kept in places that can be lost or stolen, such as wallets and purses.
  4. Essential corporate and business documents, including bank statements.  If you have corporate documents that control chain of command, ownership, title, account balances and succession, you should know where they are and can easily access them.
  5. Mortgages and deeds.  These are perhaps the most overlooked, lost and disrespected documents we come across.  Originals or copies of deeds and mortgage documents should be accessible.
  6. Medical records and prescriptions.  This is the most subjective, but if you or a family member have a complex medical history or require prescription drugs to function at a basic level, having copies of the prescriptions at issue is essential, especially during emergencies.
  7. Estate plan. You should have an estate plan, whether it is a basic will or a more sophisticated trust of various types, and it should be current and up to date.   It does no good if those you have left in charge cannot locate your estate plan.

How and where should these important and essential documents be stored?  The conventional wisdom, and likely the safest bet, is the bank in a safety deposit box. That said, it may be impractical or subject you to delays based on banking hours and a variety of other conditions including the substantial limits on access by third-party agents you may want to have possession. Would the person you appoint be able to get into the safety deposit box, including your own children?

Home and office storage of important documents is also an option. Invest in a safe that is both waterproof and fire rated to withstand most common house fires. “Too big” or “too expensive” is not a valid excuse for almost anyone reading this. Costco, as one example, has large fire-rated safes that will hold guns, laptops, jewelry and documents for as little as six hundred dollars.  Entry level small safes are a fraction of that cost.

Consider which documents are sufficient if you have a copy, like an insurance policy, and which documents need to be originals, like a passport. Consider keeping the original paperwork for which copies are an acceptable substitute in the bank and the reproduced copies at home. The most prepared also have copies of documents they actually keep on hand at home (like passports) saved somewhere else as most of us don’t have those details recorded or memorized. Do you know your passport number by heart?

All my personal clients from this month forward will receive electronic copies of their documents, instructions, filings and signature pages on an encrypted “key drive” to help in this process. That drive also allows other documents to be added to it and is encrypted to a high security level.  Don’t make electronic copies the primary source; it limits you to times when you have power and computer/internet access, a significant variable for folks in a natural disaster, as one example.