When Hurricane Sandy slammed into the Northeast last year, it caused widespread property damage. Less reported in the wake of the disaster was the loss of vital documents from people's homes.
As they went about trying to put a roof back over their head thousands of consumers also had the task of trying to locate, and replicate, their vital documents. On its website Ocean County, New Jersey still offers help to residents trying to put their paper lives back together.
There is help for replacing birth, marriage and death certificates; drivers licenses and tax returns; insurance policies, mortgage papers, wills and property deeds. The list goes on and on.
Financial advisor Michell Perry Higgins, a principal with California Financial Advisors, in San Ramon, Calif., has seen this happen all too often. And not just in the case of a disaster or fire that destroys important documents. All too often people can't put their hands on important documents when they need them.
“It started years ago when my clients would come through the door and we would create these beautiful financial plans and I would ask them, 'where is the rest of your documentation,' and I would get the deer-in-the-headlights look,” Higgins said. “I would say, 'where do you store all your secure passwords, where do you store your estate information and your personal affairs' and I would find clients had information everywhere.”
Then a client would die. For a son or daughter the emotional task of wrapping up a parent's estate was usually more complicated than it needed to be.
“It has taken the heirs countless hours to dig through Mom and Dad's office to try and find paperwork that matters,” Higgins said.
A place to put everything
Higgins has responded by creating what she calls The Everything Binder. As the name implies, it is an actual binder with 17 tabs, all related to important documentary topics for an individual or family. For example, there are places to store insurance papers, passwords, brokerage statements, retirement investments, information about pets, and estate planning documents, among others.
“That's the beauty of The Everything Binder, it puts all of your personal affairs, all your estate and financial information in one location,” Higgins said.
Naturally, the binder itself needs to be in a secure location. Higgins said she urges her clients to keep it in either a safe or a safe deposit box at a bank. It not only will save time for them, in case of a disaster, it can also be a real gift to their heirs.
“For that individual who passes away and doesn't have their personal and financial life documented properly, they're adding countless hours and even dollars to the loved one,” she said. “I estimate it would, in many cases, take 20 to 40 hours to recompile this information.”
It's also a good idea to make electronic copies of your important documents and store them in the cloud, or provide copies to loved ones. A number of inexpensive scanners have been designed for this purpose, allowing users to capture documents and store them in a searchable database.
What documents are important to keep? USA.gov, the U.S. government's official web portal, lists a number of documents you should have in your safe file. A good system, the agency says, will help prevent chaos after a major life event.