Where and how should I store them?

Some years back, while discussing Get It Together at a retirement community, a participant posed this dilemma: If I collect up all my important records, how can I ensure they will be safe from theft? If someone breaks into my home today, they won’t be able to find a thing, because all my records are scattered, filed, and hidden!

Well, that’s the dilemma. Not only would a thief have a hard time finding them, but so will your loved ones when the time comes. And, in the meantime, you have to search for the documents you need.

So how can you store your materials securely, yet keep them handy for your regular reference and update, and make them accessible to your loved ones? First, let’s look at what they will need immediately, upon your incapacitation or death.

What will they need immediately?

If you are incapacitated, your loved ones will need immediate access to your Health Care Directives and your Durable Power of Attorney for Finances—to manage your medical care and your finances. They will need direction concerning your dependent children (and others depending on you), pets and livestock, and employment or other business interest—to handle care in your absence and notify those counting on you. And, ideally, they will have access to your calendar to cancel any upcoming appointments.

During the first days and weeks, they will also need direction concerning your insurance policies, current bills, bank and brokerage accounts, and service providers for you and your home. They will need information about your retirement plans or pensions and any government benefits you are receiving.

In addition, upon your death, your loved ones will need access to your final-arrangement wishes and plans, if any.

What will be needed longer term?

Eventually, within four weeks or so of your incapacitation, your loved ones will need additional information about you and your assets, including:

• Real Estate
• Personal Property
• Vehicles
• Memberships
• Other Income
• Taxes

Following your death, they will also need your will, trusts, and other estate planning documents you have made.

Store for Immediate Access

For two reasons, the materials that will be needed immediately should be readily accessible. First, you need to be able to access them frequently, as you secure new insurance policies, change banking arrangements, secure or cancel credit cards, retrieve your passport, sell your car and transfer the title, and so on. Secondly, your loved ones will need to gain access when something happens to you.

The best place to store your planner—at least the materials that will be needed in the short term—is a fireproof, water-resistant home safe. The safe must be large enough to hold your planner (and other items you wish to store there). If, by its sheer weight, it’s not sufficiently large to deter theft, it should be bolted to the floor. (Most good safes have standard floor bolts.)

You may want to store these materials in a safe deposit box at your bank, but that’s not a good idea. Not only does it hamper your ongoing access but it may prevent your loved ones from timely access. For more detail, see Your safe deposit box.

Store for Later Access

The materials needed longer term could be securely stored in your safe deposit box—if you have ensured that your loved ones can gain access within a month or six weeks. If you live in a state that seals safe deposit boxes when an owner dies, the delay will inevitably be longer and you would be wise to store all of your materials in your home safe. See Your safe deposit box for more information—who can gain access and when.

Even for materials needed longer term, the best storage option is a fireproof, water-resistant home safe. Your home safe allows your ready, ongoing access and unimpaired, timely access by your loved ones.

Coach Your Loved Ones

Of course, storing your materials in your safe means that your loved ones will need to know how to access what they need. Not everyone you love needs access instructions, however; just the 2 or 3 people you have named as agents (and alternates) on your legal documents:

• Health care agent on your Health Care Directives
• Executor of your will
• Agent for finances on your Durable Power of Attorney for Finances
• Successor trustee on your living trust

You’ll want to tell them, and remind them periodically, how to get into your safe. Perhaps you even want to show them, so that the mechanics of access are well understood and ingrained.

By following the tips in this article, you can store your records wisely and securely. If you could benefit from additional help and structure, Get It Together provides the framework for organizing and storing your important records, both printed as well as electronic records you may make.

Preparing a Get It Together planner simplifies your instruction to your loved ones. You can simply tell them of your planner and assure them that all they will need is contained there. They only need to get to it, open to the first pages, and follow your guidance.


Melanie Cullen is the author of Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won’t Have To (Nolo), a workbook/CD-ROM for preparing and organizing your important records—for yourself and for your loved ones. She is a management consultant with TerraSys Consulting, Inc. and serves on the Projects@Work editorial board. She holds an MBA from the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University.

Image credit: Mykl Roventine/Flickr Creative Commons

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Comment by Marsha Whitaker on March 25, 2010 at 11:38pm
Hi Melanie,

I signed up here because I'm beginning to like your blog. I'm looking for tips on how to organize things inside the house and I came across your post. It's kind of different to home improvement tips I'm looking for but you made me realize that our family records are in a complete mess, it's just stored in a box inside the cabinet, dog-eared certificates etc. I like the way you write too, very organize. I guess I have to begin to "get it together" my records at home and my home as a whole too.


Marsha Whitaker
Pittsburgh, PA
Vital Records Online

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