Feature Articles: Miscellaneous
Keep track of your documents and records
Brenda Procter, M.S., State Specialist and Instructor, Personal Financial Planning, University of Missouri Extension
The chaos of life can make it hard to keep up with important papers and records. Investing a little time to create a tracking system can save time and money down the road.
Tax documents back up the deductions you claimed if the IRS ever audits you. Keep tax returns and records for three years, but save them longer if you have space. The IRS has few specific rules for record keeping, but a good system helps you find papers you need. Keep records that relate to your federal tax return, including bills, credit card and other receipts, invoices, mileage logs, canceled checks or other proof of payment, and any other records related to deductions or credits you claim on your return.
Keep other important records like court papers, contracts, insurance policies, loan papers, leases, passports, or social services applications and approval forms as long as they are in effect. Update them as necessary.
Family papers to keep permanently include wills, home sale or property settlement agreements, marriage certificates, divorce decrees, adoption papers, citizenship papers, school records or transcripts, employment records, birth certificates, immunization records and Social Security cards. Many of these documents are difficult and expensive to replace.
See below to help you decide where to keep your papers.
Emergency file for any documents you might need if there is an emergency or you need quick access to them (e.g., emergency numbers, family phone numbers and contact numbers if you were injured).
Safety deposit box or fire proof home safe for documents or items that are very valuable or hard to replace (e.g., birth and death certificates, divorce decrees, marriage certificates, car titles, Social Security cards, family jewelry, recent tax returns and supporting papers, military release papers, active insurance policies, or treasured family letters, keepsakes or pictures).
Active file in a drawer for anything that hasn’t been done yet or that you may want to review within the next six months or so (e.g., outstanding bills, recent bank statements, child care payment records or key phone numbers and contact information).
Dead file or filing cabinet for any documents you might need or want to look at in future years (e.g., tax papers older than three years, school transcripts, report cards, certificates of recognition and pictures).
If you live in an area prone to natural disasters that require evacuation, you might consider creating a grab-and-go box. Use a durable sealed waterproof box or backpack. This box should contain copies of everything in your emergency file and add other important papers:
- Medical prescriptions, including eyeglasses
- Copies of children’s immunization records
- Copies of all insurance cards and policies
- Copies of the back and front of your credit cards
- Cash or traveler’s checks for several days of living expenses (credit cards may not work)
- Rolls of quarters (banks might not be open for several days)
- List of bills and when they are due
- Copies of the tax form 1040 for past three tax years
- Copies of your home inventory list with serial numbers and purchase prices with photographs and/or video
- Copies of any wills, durable powers of attorney, deeds, marriage and birth certificates
The list of information in the grab-and-go box is so extensive because this box is meant to help your family rebuild if your house has been destroyed or you don’t have access to your house for a long period of time.
This list may not have everything you need. Spend some time thinking about the needs your family might have. If multiple generations live in your household, be sure to include everyone in the planning. Also, consider developing evacuation plans. If you have to leave your house for several days, are there relatives you could stay with? If a disaster prevented you from reaching the local pharmacy, do you know where the nearest location would be?
Since this container has everything you need to rebuild your life, be sure to store it in a secure place in your home. If you’re forced to leave your home, be sure to keep your grab-and-go box with you at all times. Identity theft is a real concern in a natural disaster as people’s lives are upended. Shelters and/or roads become crowded, so safeguard your grab-and-go box during your stay.
Tucker, J.A. 2006. Preparing your Evacuation “Grab and Go” Box. Lousiana State University Ag Center. http://www.lsuagcenter.com/NR/rdonlyres/405B7245-4746-4480-9578-F3CE54172F2B/25562/Pub2949IEvacuationGrabBoxFINAL.pdf
Lieurance, Eunice. 1999. Managing Family Records. MU Extension guide GH3831. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri. http://extension.missouri.edu/publications/
Last update: Monday, October 17, 2011