Personal Document Management for Emergencies

Get Organised!

Following the horrific floods and fires that have affected many parts of Australia recently, it is timely to think about personal document management and get organised by having them in a safe place ready for transportation should you need to leave your home in the event of an emergency. A personal document organised should be part of your disaster kit. If records are kept all together, it is even feasible that someone could collect them for you if need be.

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The collection of essential documents into a single storage unit, be it a file or box, saves valuable time if the whole lot can be picked up easily and taken. While you may feel that some of the following suggestions are not applicable to you, others may well be and even the process of considering what is essential and what is not will be useful.

Obviously it is best to gather this information at some time when you are relaxed and able to concentrate on the issue. It is no good suddenly deciding you need to gather important documents when the police are banging on the front door waiting to escort you to a rescue helicopter. And don't think it can't happen to you. A spontaneous fire from a faulty appliance can leave you standing on the street in your nightwear in a matter of a few hours.

Consider photo-copying or scanning the things you consider most important. You might keep the originals at home and the copies off site, perhaps in a safe deposit box at the bank. Most banks, for an annual fee, will keep essential records either in packet storage or a safe deposit box.

You may want to give a set of copies to a trusted friend or family member or you may wish purchase a fire retardant, metal, lockable box and keep copies in the house.

Firstly, gather your identity records. These are important. Birth certificates, marriage certificates, divorce and death certificates, drivers' licences and passports for all family members come under this category and should be scanned or photo-copied. Copies may not be valid for some purposes should the worst happen but at least you will have the information necessary to obtain replacements.

Essential family records include insurance policies of all types. Vehicles, personal liability, property (house and contents), specific property (jewellery, equipment), life insurance, health policies, health records and/or physicians' names and addresses for all family members, any licenses to practice and any Family Court documents relating to eg custody arrangements, etc should all be considered essential family records.

Non-essential family records might include a reference list of professionals (names, addresses, telephone numbers) for medical, legal, tax, insurance, veterinary contacts and any other that are applicable to your circumstances. Personal health records would probably come under this category.

Essential legal records include living wills if you have them. Keep a copy at home with your medical records and provide a copy to your solicitor (and perhaps your doctor) or keep in a safe deposit box. Ditto for wills and any Power of Attorney documents. An Enduring Power of Attorney will allow others to make health care or business decisions for you should the need arise.

Essential property documents include your contract or lease for your current property (if renting), land and property titles and certificates/bills of sale and proof of registration of motor vehicles.

Non-essential property documents include guarantees and warranties which provide proof of date of purchase and/or value of item. These could be very important if items are destroyed by fire/flood/cyclone.

For insurable items, maintain an up-to-date list which records the time, its cost, date of purchase or sale and photos to establish values. Once the list is done, copy it.

Instruction books for various appliances might also be considered worth keeping.

Essential financial records would include bank statements, credit cards and a safe deposit box item list. Bank statements would provide proof of payments for income tax purposes (eg child support/maintenance payments, child care expenses). If credit cards become lost or stolen, notify the nearest office of the company immediately. Follow up with a letter if necessary. If you have a safe deposit box, revise the list of contents annually and ensure a family member has a copy.

Less essential are receipts and proof of payment although these may be useful when filing insurance claims. A monthly budget or accounting book to track spending, income and expenses is useful to determine net worth.

Keep a list of bank accounts and numbers in the safe deposit box. All tax returns, invoices, receipts and accompanying papers for accounts that are tax deductible should be kept for at least seven years (for Australian tax purposes).

An inventory of household items, recording the cost and date of purchase or sale, plus photos of the items could be invaluable for insurance purposes. While this all sounds like a lot of effort, and it is, once it is done, updating will not be nearly as onerous.

Everyone knows by now that you take photo albums with you if you need to leave during an emergency. It must be heart-breaking to have a major disaster affect your family and to lose your personal photos and mementoes. It is a good idea to take the time to make a CD or DVD of favourite photos. They truly are irreplaceable and digital copies of at least some of your treasured moments will mitigate the pain a little should photo albums be destroyed.

This is also a good time to think about getting an external hard drive for your personal computer (PC). Better still, have two, keep one off site but they will be of limited use unless they are backed up regularly. Maybe you already keep records stored off site. If so, so much the better. Otherwise, a separate hard drive, updated regularly, could save enormous heart-ache if you run a business from home (and even if you don't).

Essential records could also be scanned and saved digitally. Again, make several copies while you're at it and give one to a trusted friend or relative and keep one in a safe deposit box.

You can continue to store records at home but you may want to give some thought to a more structured storage method. Keep important records together and store in an archive box. Archive boxes are water resistant, mould retardant and will not give off toxic gases that may damage the documents. Store the box somewhere in the main home, at least one metre off the ground and somewhere where it can be easily accessed should you need to evacuate.

While most will agree these ideas make good sense, it does involve some effort. It is just as important to update records each year. But consider the alternative if your home burns down and everything  goes with it.