A week and a half ago, when everyone on the East coast was preparing for Hurricane Sandy, most of us were thinking about water, flashlights, sump pump backup power, and gasoline. How many people took the time to make sure that they had their vital personal records accounted for and safeguarded in the event that the storm did more than take down some branches in the backyard? Those of us who were lucky enough to weather the storm without sustaining significant damage can look at those who lost everything and use the jolt of “That could have been me…” to prompt us to take measures to protect one of our most important personal assets.
Personal vital records include (but are not limited to) the following:
- Birth/marriage/death certificates, divorce decrees;
- Adoption records;
- Passports, driver’s licenses, health insurance cards, work IDs, other photo IDs;
- Current photographs of household members;
- Contracts, leases, and mortgages;
- Deeds for real property and titles for your cars;
- Insurance policies (homeowner’s, auto, health, dental, life, etc.);
- Records and access information for all financial accounts (bank, credit card, investment, etc.)
- Records of legal proceedings;
- Wills and estate plans;
- Immunization and medical history records;
- Prescriptions (medical, vision, etc.);
- Tax returns and supporting documentation;
- Emergency information (e.g., contact information for family, friends, doctors, insurance companies, and contractors and utility companies);
- Household inventory (provides replacement value evidence for insurance purposes);
- Social Security cards and records;
- Educational records (transcripts, diplomas, etc.);
- Employment records (resume, employment history, reference contact information, salary history);
- Military service records;
- Records for your pet(s); and last, but not least,
- Unique records that have sentimental value (family photographs, video, keepsakes, etc.).
Many of these records can be replaced if you lose them, although that will take a lot more time and effort (and money!) than protecting the ones you already have. Some of your records can’t be replaced. These are records that you’ll survive without, but they’re the ones that you’ll truly regret losing (e.g., the video of your baby’s first steps, or letters from a deceased loved one).
You should keep your vital records together (in one container if possible) so that you can take them with you if you need to evacuate and you should update them regularly. These records may be electronic or they may be physical (paper, photographs, videotapes, etc.) Your plan for maintaining them should take their format into consideration. You may want to keep copies of certain records in a safe deposit box or with a trusted friend or relative (who doesn’t live next door, in case they suffer from the same disaster!) This is also a good option for cases where you don’t have a chance to get the records before the disaster strikes. A fire-proof safe in your home is another good storage option. Another option, if you have chosen to digitize records as a backup, is to use online storage, which may be a service offered through the company that provides your home internet connection (or you can choose from any of a large number of companies that offer this as their primary service). Just make sure key people (e.g., your spouse, children, your lawyer, or a trusted friend) have access to the records in the event that you are unable to do so. They will need to know the physical location of the records (and know how to gain access to that location) or will need login information for the server where the records are stored.
Identifying, locating, and safeguarding your vital records is not a quick and easy task, but it can save enormous amounts of time and money and is the best way to prevent important records from being destroyed in the event of a disaster.
Step 1: Review your records and identify which ones are the most important to you and your family. This is a good time to destroy your obsolete records.
Step 2: Put originals together in a container you can take with you or in a home safe or a bank safe deposit box.
Step 3: Make copies (electronic or photocopies) of these records for active use and to serve as a back-up if the originals are destroyed. Keep a copy with someone you trust or keep an electronic backup online.
Step 4: Make sure everyone who should know how to access these records knows how to do so. Likewise, make sure that you keep the records as secure as possible. This is personal and confidential information that you do not want just anyone to gain access to.
Taking these steps to protect your personal records will not only help in the case of a disaster but will also support your regular household operations as it provides an opportunity to organize your records and purge the obsolete ones. Happy recordkeeping!