Tame the Paper Chase Before You Drown in Paperwork


By MJ Plaster

Back in the 20th century, they promised us a paperless life. Can I get an LOL? Below you’ll find a complete guide to storing important papers and documents. Reading this and working through it will make watching paint dry an exciting alternative, but you know you need to get your papers organized, and I’m giving you a roadmap to do it–NOW.

Don’t leave home without them

Keep the following documents with you as indicated:

  • State-issued ID – Keep your photo driver’s license or state-issued photo ID on you at all times. Sometimes you can run into trouble with authorities for “walking/breathing without ID” even though there’s no law requiring you to carry ID at all times.
  • Gun permit – To carry a gun without a permit is insane and can get you killed.
  • Medical insurance/list of prescription drugs – Keep your medical insurance and drug prescription discount cards and a list of all currently prescribed drugs next to your insurance cards in your wallet. Note any drug allergies on the list of prescribed drugs. Dr. Welby doesn’t meet you at the hospital, so you have to act proactively.
  • One credit card, one bank ATM card and one check You don’t need to bring a truckload of credit cards, and if you need more than one check, plan ahead and bring only what you need. It’s a good idea to keep cards and checks separate from your wallet.
  • Important phone numbers – Keep a printed list in your wallet and a spare in your glove compartment (in case your wallet is stolen). If your phone is inoperable, you won’t be able to access your stored numbers. In addition to your doctor, lawyer, family, neighbors and friends, include numbers for your bank and credit card issuers.

Auto documents

  • Registration – In your glove compartment.
  • Auto insurance card – In your wallet, not your glove compartment. Your car could be gone for hours before you realize it’s stolen. What better way to give the middle finger to a fleeing auto thief if he or she is pulled over and can’t produce the insurance card!
  • Title –Store your car title away from your car.

Infrequently used IDs and documents

Keep originals of these documents in a safe place.

  • Birth certificate – You will need this when you least expect it, so keep a copy of your state’s latest version. Those old white on black birth certificates are no longer valid.
  • Voter registration card – You can’t vote in person without it. You’ll get a provisional ballot, but do you think those are counted?
  • Passport/passport card – The card allows you to enter Mexico, Canada Bermuda and the Caribbean. You’ll need the full passport to travel abroad. Make a color copy, keep the real thing in the hotel safe and keep the Memorex version on your person whenever you leave the hotel. Do not let the hotel desk personnel keep it. Never store documents, cash, etc., in a backpack while traveling. Pickpockets are notorious for robbing backpacks while you’re wearing them.
  • Death certificates (your parents’ or spouse’s) – Order extra copies from the state, not the funeral home. Extra death certificates are a profit center for funeral homes.
  • Personal documents – Keep original and official copies of adoption papers, marriage licenses, divorce decrees. Keep an electronic copy of baptismal certificates.

Home documents

  • House deed and real estate sale documentation – Keep original and electronic copies.
  • Homeowners’/renters’ insurance – Scan into a PDF and run through OCR to make the PDF searchable. When you have a claim, you can find everything you need without reading the entire document.
  • Flood/earthquake insurance, etc. – Same as above.
  • Warranties – Original and electronic copies.
  • User manuals – Keep all major and minor appliance guides together and easily accessible. Keep computer and small device guides together but separate from appliance guides.
  • Home inventory and photos – Electronic copy.

Financial instruments and documents

  • Cash – Keep a stash of emergency cash on hand and well hidden. You might stash a few Franklins and a spare key in a small OTC medicine bottle, place the bottle in a zipper bag and bury it in a planter or in the garden under a rock.
  • Checkbook and checks – Except for the emergency check in your wallet, keep the rest hidden at home.
  • Stock certificates (Yes, they’re still out there) – Under lock and key. Copies are worthless, and you have the only proof that you own the stock.
  • Bank and investment statements – Electronic copies.
  • Loan documents – Electronic copies.
  • Life Insurance and annuity policies and statements/pre-paid funeral policies, etc. – Keep electronic copies of policies and last statements.
  • Tax forms and receipts– Electronic copies.

Business and miscellaneous

For each of the following, store the originals in a safe place, and keep electronic copies indefinitely.

  • Articles of Incorporation/DBAs
  • Contracts
  • Court orders

Directives and estate planning

Keep the following until they are no longer valid. Give a copy of all of these to your attorney, and file a copy of any advance directives with your doctors and hospital. All of these documents except the powers of attorney are DO-ITNOW homework. You don’t need a lawyer; you can do it for a small fee at LegalZoom, or you might find your state’s documents online.

  • Powers of attorney (POA) — You’ll need to file many copies of powers of attorney to interact on behalf of the individual you represent—with banks and financial institutions, utilities, and doctors and hospitals. My father’s hospital required a copy of the POA even before they would accept payment.
  • Advance directives (living wills/health powers of attorney) – The designated agent makes health decisions once the person is no longer able to make these decision and/or in the event of a temporary incapacitation. Everyone needs an advanced directive because you don’t want the doctors, hospital administrators or the state making these decisions for you.
  • Wills and trusts – Give a copy of the will to your executor. If you don’t want the executor and/or heirs to know what’s in the will, give a copy to a trusted friend. Give a copy of trust papers to the trustee and/or alternate trustee.

What’s a Safe Place?

Identity theft is a blossoming business model, and in an economy with few viable business models, it’s big business. Just as you want to make your home unattractive to thieves, you want to make finding important documents an unattractive proposition.

Bank safety deposit boxes are available only during banking hours, and boxes are sealed upon the owner’s death—even if the box belongs to your spouse. And what if a bank holiday is declared? It happened during the Great Depression. Don’t make this mistake.

Some people bolt a safe to the floor. Some people bolt two safes to the floor—one for the thieves with junk and one for themselves with the real stash and well hidden.

A small lockbox is a terrible storage spot for valuable papers because thieves won’t waste time opening it. They’ll assume valuables are in it and grab it.

Keep electronic copies on an encrypted thumb drive, and you’re grab-and-go ready in case you have to make a hasty departure. Don’t keep identity information in the cloud. It defeats the whole purpose of this exercise.