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Personal Documents – Four Tips to Organize, Manage and Protect, For Emergencies Too

The recent tragic story of a friend’s loss of her former husband in a drowning accident was compounded by his not having prepared a trust, a will, or an accessible list of passwords. In the drowning, his body was never found, so the state could not issue a death certificate. Legal procedures were initiated in 3 states to locate properties and manage their disposition. As she was writing the eulogy at his desk, she told me she searched for 3 days trying to access his accounts on the internet. Shock, stress, serious expenditures of money made a tragedy even more devastating.

Alternately, my father organized his affairs and thanks to simpler times, caring for my mother for 20 years took place before the days of the internet (replacing letters), multiple credit cards (replacing cash and a checkbook) and “password” lists (replacing an address book of friends) and gifted our family with a smooth transition. I was a “sandwich” adult between my mother’s and my daughter’s needs. During that time, I devised a system to keep the information in order for quick access. I called it “Information Insurance.” In the end, the family legacy was intact and harmony prevailed thanks to the lasting “gift of order and peace of mind.”

Document management in the past 20 years has changed dramatically – and continues to change at a rapid pace. Whether at an office or at home, internet alerts continue to ask for new installations and changes of passwords, as well as provide expanding opportunities to shop and search for information with the ever-present “sign-in” message. Long gone are the days with just “one” store, bank, credit card, travel agent, doctor, lawyer, telephone, television and a nuclear family… often living in “one” town. Everything has expanded. So, how to keep track of the changes and expansions — including multiple electronic devices for every type of communication? Should electronic access fail for some reason, I feel a book of hard copy information, especially of original records, is an invaluable protection and can provide a “records grab and go” solution for unexpected events. Here are my 4 Takeaway Tips to help begin the document organizational process:

1. Checklist Plan: I created an A-Z format, just as a dictionary does, for the major categories: family members/beneficiary documents, financial affairs, insurance coverage, legal records (Advance Health Care Directive, Power of Attorney (POA), Turst, Will), medical information, passwords, pets, vehicles — and their locations. Professional legal, financial and medical guidance for these matters is the cornerstone of a solid estate plan process.

2. Credit Cards/Driver’s License: I make copies of each document in case of loss or theft and I take a copy with me as I travel; I also update Credit Reports annually.

3. Data/Digital Security: I have followed security guidelines and use complex passwords with letters and numbers; I not carry lists in my wallet; I backup computer files on a flash drive monthly; I avoid public computers and WiFi hotspots with sensitive documents and information. I maintain a hard copy of passwords… that a trusted person would be able to read.

4. I keep essential hard copies in a waterproof holder in one secure place: Beneficiary designations, Birth/Death certificates; Legal records; Marriage/Divorce records; Passports, Property deeds; Social Security cards; Stock Certificates, Vehicle titles, Veteran’s records