Important Papers: The Perfect Paper Trail

It’s the time of year when parents are searching for those all-important papers in drawers and files. When it’s time for camp registration, do you know where your child’s immunization record is? What about child-care receipts when it’s time to claim your tax deductions, and family passports for your spring break trip?

Finding a central location is the first step to getting important papers organized.

“Store documents on the first or second floor of your home,” says Matt Blessing, archivist and curator of special collections and manuscript collections at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis. “Avoid the attic and the basement,” he says, explaining paper documents are sensitive to heat and humidity and can become damaged in extreme conditions.

Protection from Fire
A fire-proof safe, available at office supply stores, can be a good option for protecting important papers from unexpected circumstances.

“If your home goes up in flames, the damage actually can come from (fire hydrant) water,” says Blessing, who also recommends a safe with a lock and key for increased security.

A safety deposit box is another option for original paperwork, as well as bulky valuables. A safety deposit box can be rented for an annual fee from many banks, however, not all branches offer safety deposit boxes. Consider easy accessibility and branch hours when shopping around for a location.

Creating a digital copy and saving documents on a CD is another backup option, but Blessing warns about the stability of this method.

“CDs have a lifespan of five to 10 years, and some have been known to fail within three years. A magnetic field or a child’s toys can corrupt the disc,” he says. While it can be a good way to save wear and tear on an original paper document, Blessing suggests that a digitized document is just a copy.

“Don’t view the second generation as your original archiveable copy.”

A secure Internet storage service can offer yet another option for storing important information. Documents can be scanned or downloaded onto a computer file. Through a secured connection, they then can be saved to an online server and accessed by you from anywhere and at anytime you have an Internet connection. Loose your passport while traveling? You can sign in to your online backup account and retrieve copies of your birth certificate, driver’s license or passport to help speed the recovery process. Before choosing an online storage service, read the privacy policy and choose a company with an established track record and credentials.

Not sure which papers are important? Documents falling into the following categories should be stored in a safe place that is easily accessible.

Family records — adoption records, birth certificates, death certificates, baptismal certificates, marriage licenses, divorce papers, citizenship and naturalization papers, passports, child custody agreements, immunization records and wills.
Financial records — tax returns, health and life insurance information, stocks and bond information, receipts, social security cards, pay stubs and banking records.
Property records — deeds, warranties, car titles, mortgage information, investment records, household inventories.

Efficiency for Ease
Setting up a safe, easily accessible system for your important documents may take a little time, but it can save you hours of searching in the future. Whatever system you use, follow these tips to make it most efficient:
• Add a list of names. Add a list of names and contact information for quick reference, including family lawyers, adoption agencies, real estate agents, insurance agents, doctors and family friends.
• Make extra copies. Gather all those files and take a trip to the nearest Xerox machine, so you’ll have several copies of documents — one for long-term storage and the other for easy access. Make more than one copy of documents your family may need when applying for camp, school, a new job or travel, including birth certificates, passports and your child’s immunization record.
• Note what’s inside files. Keep a list of where important documents are filed, separated into longterm and frequently accessed categories. Make sure you update the list each time you update files to reflect any changes.
• Tell a trusted family member. In case you are unable to access paperwork in an emergency, make sure someone outside your immediate family knows where your important documents are stored and how to access them.  
• Ask professionals about their system. Doctors, tax professionals, lawyers and insurance agents will have copies of your files. Ask how long files are kept in their office. If you relocate or change services, request a copy of your files.  
• Review files once a year. Set aside some time each year to go over your filing system, double check the location of your important documents and add any new paperwork if necessary. The start of a new year or tax time can be a good time to annually update personal files.