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Protecting Your Important Documents

As Published In Taming The Paper Tiger Blog —
Protecting Your Important Documents

So you’ve created the perfect document management system, you can put your hands on any piece of paper in 30 seconds or less, and your desk is in order. But what happens if your house burns down tomorrow — will all of your vital records go up in smoke? If you become sick or seriously injured, would your loved ones be able to find what they need to manage your affairs? You need to make sure your important paperwork is protected and easy to access in case of an emergency.

Fire, Flood, Or Tornado

Think about how difficult it would be to rebuild your life after a disaster without the right paperwork. How long would it take you to file a claim with your insurance company, if you didn’t know your policy number? What financial challenges would you face if your checks, bank statements, and credit card info was destroyed? How could you get the help you needed without birth certificates, social security cards, and other personal information?

The goal here is not to be pessimistic, but prepared. You should keep a list of all your important numbers (bank account, credit card, insurance policies, social security) and contacts (advisers, account managers, customer service) for any information that you would need if disaster struck. Store the originals of your vital records (birth certificates, wills, insurance policies) and your list in a deposit box at the bank, a locked drawer at your place of employment, or a fire safe in your closet — it’s also a good idea to leave copies of this information with your attorney and CPA, the two professionals who will be most involved with your situation if you do face a major emergency. Just be sure to indicate where they are stored in your Paper Tiger Filing System for Document Management software — the originals, the off-site copies, and extras you keep in your everyday files for quick reference.

If You Have To File A Claim

Another important piece of paperwork to consider during an emergency is your household inventory. If your personal possessions are damaged or destroyed, the insurance company isn’t just going to write you a check for the amount printed on your policy (so don’t try to claim a million dollars in coverage for $250,000 worth of stuff!) You will be asked to itemize everything that you lost and estimate its value. If you had to, right now, could you make a list of all your belongings and how much they are worth? Probably not. And it would be even more difficult during a time of crisis when you are stressed out and not thinking straight. So the key is to get things in order before you are put into that situation.

The easiest technique to walk around your house with a camcorder, filming everything that you own. Where you can, go ahead and make comments about your belongings as you shoot — “We bought that TV last year and it cost $600,” or “Grandma Miller gave us that table; it was made in 1865.” If you don’t have a video camera, just take still snapshots of each item. Don’t forget to estimate the year of purchase and the value of each piece. If you have the receipt, make a copy and clip it to your list. If an item is particularly costly or hard to replace (like artwork or an antique), you may wish to have a certified appraisal done and include that documentation with your list. Your household inventory should be stored with your other important papers. Then plan a time each year to update your list, adding on any new items you have acquired since the last inventory. Again, it’s a good idea to document where you file this list in your Paper Tiger Filing System software.

Making It Easy On Your Heirs

No one likes to think about death, but it is a fact of life. Grief is hard enough to handle, without having to deal with confusion over the deceased’s paperwork and final wishes. You can make things easier on your loved ones by getting your affairs in order now. Start by creating a document locator in Paper Tiger software — a list outlining exactly where all of your important papers are stored. If you’ve got them in a box at the bank, you may want to rethink that strategy — safe deposit boxes are often sealed at the time of death, so keep your funeral arrangements and wills someplace more accessible. And don’t forget paperwork that is kept in off-site storage. Your family will need to know the location of the following records:

• legal (wills, powers of attorney, trust documents, special bequests, safe combination)

• family (birth/adoption/guardian, social security, citizenship, marriage/divorce, military)

• banking (trusts, loans, list of accounts, statements/canceled checks, check/passbooks)

• investments (CD, securities, stock/bond/mutual fund, retirement plan, IRA, annuities)

• business (incorporation papers, contracts/agreements, computer back-up)

• deeds/titles/registrations (title insurance, property, home inventory, vehicles)

• insurance (life, other death benefits, property and casualty, health, homeowners, auto)

• funeral instructions (burial instructions, cemetery plot deeds)

• contacts (friends/relatives/business, attorney, CPA, insurance, broker, executor)

In your Paper Tiger document management software, indicate the precise location of each — in a bankers box labeled “vital documents”, in the attic at your house, in the third drawer of the big file cabinet in the corner of your office, in a safe deposit box at such-and-such bank (and where to find the key), with your attorney, accountant, or brokerage house. Be sure to include the address, directions, and any other important contact information. In addition, if you have a password for your Paper Tiger software, be sure to let them know this as well.

Memories Count As Vital Records Too

Everything we’ve talked about so far related to legal or financial records. But what about your memorabilia? It’s just as devastating (if not more so) to lose years worth of photographs and love letters as it is to have your important files destroyed. But you can take some preventative measures to protect your beloved memories, as well. If you are computer savvy, think about scanning your photos and storing them on a CD-Rom or external hard drive (which should live in your fire safe or bank deposit box). If you don’t have access to that kind of technology, at least store your negatives (clearly labeled and organized chronologically or categorically) in a safe location, so you can have your photos reprinted if you need to.

You can also do the same thing with physical objects that have sentimental value. Take photos of your most beloved possessions and stash them all away in your fire safe. If you have a lot of “treasures” that need protecting, you might even consider getting a unit big enough to hold your most important memorabilia. I purchased a fire safe that looks like a 2-drawer file cabinet — the top drawer holds my photo albums and “keepsakes,” the bottom drawer is for important paperwork. Just remember that photos and negatives are more sensitive to heat than paper — you will want a different grade of “fire proof” for these items to keep them from melting. And don’t forget — your Paper Tiger Filing System for document management software is great for creating an index of photos and other physical memorabilia, too!

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Ramona Creel is an award-winning 15-year veteran organizer and member of the National Association Of Professional Organizers. As well as having birthed “The A-To-Z Of Getting Organized,” Ramona is also the author of “The Professional Organizer’s Bible: A Slightly Irreverent And Completely Unorthodox Guide For Turning Clutter Into A Career”—and the creator of more than 200 “quick-start” business tools and templates for use by productivity professionals. She writes seven different blogs, has worked with hundreds of clients, and has delivered scores of presentations on getting organized. Ramona resides on the roads of America as a full-time RVer—living and working in a 29-foot Airstream. Learn more at and

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