If you’re anything like the average person, chances are you have stacks of documents filed (or piled) here and there around your home. Some of them are important, while others could be tossed.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Step 1: Gather Your Documents
- Step 2: Pick an Online Storage Platform
- Step 3: Scan Your Documents & Upload
- Step 4: Place Copies in a Secure Container
- Step 5: How to Replace Important Documents
You might be wondering what would happen if you needed to retrieve an essential document in a hurry. Would you be able to find it quickly and easily?
The best way to make sure you can locate critical personal and household documents is by creating a foolproof system. Below, we’ll go over exactly how to store important documents, both in print and online.
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Step 1: Gather Your Documents
The first step is figuring out which documents are essential and tracking them down. This can be easier said than done. Give yourself ample time to complete this step, since you might have to search high and low for a few key items.
If you’ve lost any of your must-have documents, you can usually request a new one. However, that process can be time-consuming, and you want to start as soon as possible.
So, what are the most important documents to have around at home and to keep stored safely online?
Here’s an easy list that will help you gather up everything you need:
- Personal and family documentation: Birth certificates and adoption papers, Social Security cards, IDs and drivers’ licenses, passports or green cards, naturalization documents, living wills, marriage licenses, divorce papers, Powers of Attorney and advanced directives, and death certificates
- Vehicle documentation: Vehicle registration and proof of ownership, lease agreements, and car loan payments
- Housing documentation: Mortgage statement or deeds of trust and rental agreements
- Income: Pay stubs and government benefits (including Social Security, veterans’ support, etc)
- Healthcare: Health insurance card, health savings account statements, and recent medical records
- Assets and savings: Professional property appraisals, retirement account statements, investment account statements, and bank and credit union statements
- Debts and obligations: Student loan payments and alimony and child support payments
- Taxes: Last three years’ tax returns, property tax statement, and personal property tax statements
Step 2: Pick an Online Storage Platform
Storing your important documents online may seem like a godsend. However, you have to be careful about how you choose and use an online storage platform.
Data hacks are becoming more and more common as large businesses get in over their heads and outgrow their safe storage capabilities. Additionally, many data-storing sites are simply not HIPAA compliant, which means your personal health information could be at risk.
With Cake, you can create an end-of-life plan to share with family, including funeral wishes, wills, and Powers of Attorney. The Cake platform also allows you to store essential documents and photos so that whoever you share it with has access if and when they need it.
In addition to backing up your documents with a reliable data storage platform, we recommend keeping most of your documents on paper, too. That allows you to easily access them without worrying about internet access and passwords. You can reach them as quickly as you need to.
Step 3: Scan Your Documents & Upload
So how do you get all of those documents backed up online? First, it’s important to accept that the process of backing up documents to an online server could be an extended one.
It may take hours to complete, and you might want to recruit some help in the process. The length of time this step takes depends on how many documents you have and want to upload.
Get access to a scanner
To start, you’ll need a scanner with internet access or a computer connection. Many people no longer own printers and scanners, and an iPhone scanning app likely won’t cut it for this project.
If you have a lot of pages to scan and upload, you can hire a scanning service to do it for you. Many shipping centers and office supply locations offer scanning services in-house. You can pay per minute for using the scanner yourself, or you can pay per page to have someone do it for you.
DIY or pay for a scanning service
If you’re working with private documents that contain personal information, like your social security number, it’s safer to scan the documents yourself.
An office scanner at FedEx, Staples, or another reliable location will allow you to scan more pages, more quickly, than an at-home, single-page scanner.
Most of these locations allow you to scan documents onto a CD or thumb drive to take with you. You’ll need to find one that does.
Upload your docs
Once you have all of your important documents on a CD or thumb drive, you can now upload those files to the data storage system of your choice.
It’s also a great idea to keep that thumb drive or CD in a protected location, where you can easily find it.
You might even choose to make a copy by duplicating the files onto another CD or thumb drive, just to be extra safe.
Step 4: Place Copies in a Secure Container
Getting everything organized digitally is great. But you still need to hold onto paper copies of many of your most important documents. If you made backup CDs or thumb drives, you’ll need to store those in a safe location, too.
For safe document storage, you have two options: secure at-home document storage or a safe deposit box (or both).
Safe-deposit box for document storage
Many people keep copies of their most important paper documents or digital storage devices in safe deposit boxes.
You could use this method to store your living will and any other documents that you won’t need to access very often.
To acquire a safe deposit box, speak with your bank or several banks in your area. You’ll need to pay a monthly rental rate to maintain the box.
If you go this route, it’s important to go the extra step to inform a loved one about your safe deposit box and how to access it.
If you have a key for the box, store the key in a safe location at home, where someone can find it if they need to. Include information about the key’s location--or an access code for the deposit box--in your digital backup storage, as well. All of this information can be part of your letter of instruction.
At-home document storage
Whether or not you choose to rent a safe deposit box, you’ll need to set up an at-home storage system, too. Many documents should be available to you at all times, in case you need to refer to them for important information.
That includes pay stubs, tax information, and data about your assets and debts. Additionally, you’ll often add new documents and throw out old ones as you no longer need them (see How Long to Keep Your Documents, below).
Here are some tips for setting up your at-home storage system:
- Purchasing containers. When you set up at-home storage, chose file boxes that are waterproof and fireproof. For documents like pay-stubs, you might not need a high level of security. However, for information like your social security card and birth certificate, it’s a good idea to keep those documents in a locked, air-tight, and waterproof/fireproof container.
- Choosing a location. Store your document boxes in a cool and dry location. Even if your file boxes are fire and waterproof, temperature changes and humidity changes can affect the documents that are most essential.
- Laminating key documents. If you want to go an extra step, you might choose to laminate any documents that you know you’re going to need for years to come.
- Providing access. As with your safe deposit box, make sure to include information about how to access your storage boxes--and the locations of any keys--in your online backup storage or another secure place.
Step 5: How to Replace Important Documents
Accidents happen. People move, things get swept up with the trash, and sometimes paperwork just disappears. It’s not uncommon to lose track of important documents like your tax returns, or even your birth certificate and social security card.
Luckily, there are ways to replace those documents and turn over a new leaf with keeping them safe. Here’s what to do if you lose your essential personal or household documents:
- Vital records: If you lose your birth certificate or Social Security card, you’ll need to contact the Vital Records Department for your state.
- ID card: If you lose your driver’s license, contact the DMV where you live.
- Passport: Immediately let the State Department know that you’ve lost your passport or that it’s been stolen. Then, request a new one.
- Permanent resident card (green card): If you lose your green card, apply for a replacement with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
- Tax record: If you need a copy of your W-2 or income documentation, contact your employer. If it’s still the same tax year, they might be able to provide a copy. If you need a tax return from a past year, you can get one.
Simplifying Storing Documents
Getting started with storing your critical documents can seem like a daunting task at first. But once you get everything in order, you’ll be able to breathe a sigh of relief.
All of your important documents will be where you can easily find them. And best of all, you won’t have to sort through piles of junk mail and 10-year-old pay stubs to find what you’re looking for.
Post-planning tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, it's tough to handle both the emotional and technical aspects of their unfinished business without a way to organize your process. We have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.
- “Checklist of important legal documents and financial statements.” FDIC. www.fdic.gov/news/conferences/affordable/hcachecklist.pdf
- “Get Transcript.” IRS. www.irs.gov/individuals/get-transcript
- “Replace Your Vital Records.” USA.gov. www.usa.gov/replace-vital-documents
- “Replace a Green Card.” USCIS. www.uscis.gov/green-card/after-green-card-granted/replace-a-green-card
- “Where to Write for Vital Records.” CDC. www.cdc.gov/nchs/w2w/index.htm
- “U.S. Department of State.” USA.gov. www.usa.gov/federal-agencies/u-s-department-of-state
- “How long should I keep records?” IRS. 10 July 2019. www.irs.gov/businesses/small-businesses-self-employed/how-long-should-i-keep-records