Part of preparing for a disaster (whether it be flood, fire, earthquake, tornado, or hurricane) includes disaster-proofing your important documents—that is, making sure that after a disaster, you have the information and documentation necessary to speed the recovery process. Preparing in this way also means you can focus on personal safety when it counts, and not worry about gathering documents at the last minute.
Here's a primer on what kinds of documents you might need in a disaster, where you should store these important papers, and how technology can help make the job easier.
When disaster-proofing your documents, there are no hard and fast rules about what to keep where. The goal is to have everything in at least two places in case one is destroyed or inaccessible. Where you store each item will depend on when you expect to need it, and how hard it would be to replace. Consider the following options:
You are, obviously, very limited in what you can keep in such a small space. Most important is identification—some form of government-issued ID, such as a driver's license. Also keep your military ID if you have one, your medical insurance card and physician contact information, and any important prescription information. Carry photos of your family members and pets—they will improve your chances of being reunited if you become separated.
You can rent a safe deposit at your bank or credit union for a small annual fee. A safe deposit box provides a high level of security. Even if the bank is affected by the same disaster you are, it is likely the vault would remain standing. It also gives you a safe place to keep non-document valuables, such as jewelry.
On the other hand, a safe deposit box can be inconvenient if you want to access its contents frequently or at times when the bank is closed. It can also be problematic if you keep things in the box that you might need immediately after a disaster because the bank may be inaccessible.
When deciding what to store in your safe deposit box, choose originals of items you are unlikely to need immediately and that are difficult or impossible to replace. One thing that should not be stored in a safe deposit box is the original or only copy of your will because the box may be "sealed" upon your death. (For more on storing your will, see How to Keep Your Will Safe.)
The box you keep at home should be fireproof, lockable, and light enough for you to carry. This is a good place to keep either originals or copies of things you might need immediate access to. It's also a good choice for records that must be updated frequently, that could be replaced if necessary, or that are too bulky to store in a safe deposit box.
The disadvantages of a home box are that it can be stolen, become inaccessible if your home were destroyed, or become off-limits while you're away.
Store all contents of your home box, such as a copy of your will, in sealed plastic bags so they can't be damaged by water. If you have a safe deposit box, keep one of the keys here, too.
If an attorney has prepared legal documents for you, the attorney will typically keep a set of originals. (For help creating a will or trust, see Nolo's Wills & Estate Planning area.) You may also be able to have your attorney keep your funeral or other instructions and your second safe deposit box key, if that is your preference.
Keeping copies of important papers with a trusted person who does not live close to you is a good way to avoid having all your records affected by a regional disaster, such as a hurricane. Bear in mind, however, that you will not have immediate access to anything kept there.
This may also be a good place to keep your second safe deposit box key, along with the box location and a list of its contents, the names and numbers of your attorney and executor, and any instructions you wish to provide.
Technology provides some excellent tools for safeguarding your important documents. It also makes it easier to access your records when you need to, and more convenient to update them. Consider scanning important documents and uploading the files to cloud storage so they're accessible from any computer. If you prefer a non-cloud option, you can also save the digital files on a physical storage device, such as a CD or flash drive. In that case, consider keeping the storage device in your fireproof home box and updating it as needed.
Also consider using a password manager to store your usernames and passwords. You have to remember only one master password to access the list. Or create a master list using a word processing or spreadsheet program that allows you to password-protect the document. Then store that document on your password-protected flash drive. But you may want to take precautions so that someone you trust—such as your executor—can access what they need.
Here is a general list of the kinds of documents and records you might want to keep safe:
For more information on organizing your important information and documents, check out Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won't Have To, by Melanie Cullen (Nolo).