How to store your most important documents

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Your will. Your life insurance policy. Your birth certificate. Your third-grade report card. These are the kinds of things you’ll want your kids or other beneficiaries to have access to someday (or that you might need to grab in a pinch), and the kinds of things that would be devastating to lose in a disaster like a flood or a fire. But how do you store them securely, and how do you make sure they’re accessible in the event of an emergency? And with more of our lives moving online, how do you make sure your digital files are secure, too?

Good questions. All of them. And it just so happens that we have produced the answers below. In short, you’ll almost certainly deploy some combination of three key places/approaches, both for redundancy and because different types of info require different types of security. (Spoiler alert: That junk drawer in your kitchen will not appear in this article.) Here, then, is your complete guide to storing important info for your family.

Fireproof safe

Start here. Fireproof safes are affordable, come in a range of sizes, and no, it’s not just a clever name: They’ll protect your important documents in case of fire. (More on that later.)

Once your documents are nestled inside, they’ll be easily accessible for you (and your loved ones, should something happen to you). This makes them ideal for documents you want to regularly update or might need off-hours access to, including: passports; your will (original, if it’s not kept with an attorney); emergency medical instructions; power of attorney; funeral/burial instructions. This is a good spot for copies of original documents stored offsite (including physical, digital files stored on a USB stick, CD or DVD). Photographs. Valuable objects you sometimes use or want to insure (e.g., jewelry). Cash. (Regarding those last two: Safety deposit boxes (explained below) are not covered by the FDIC, so if your jewelry is insured, you’ll want to store it at home.)

That said, there are several reasons why a fireproof safe should not be your only home for essential files. There’s a theft risk, however remote. And assuming you keep it in your home, you and your important files could both be harmed in the same disaster (for example, a devastating flood, tornado or hurricane). And then, depending on the size and structure of the safe itself, it might make it hard to organize your files. It’s also an all or nothing thing—if you only want certain relatives to have access to certain files (or if you want to grant access to someone who doesn’t live nearby), a safe isn’t ideal.

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Remember to check the fire rating

All safes come with an official fire rating from the Underwriters Laboratory, an organization with 100 years’ experience in such matters. The rating will tell you a) What temperature it will stay inside during a fire; b) How long it will stay that temperature. You can typically buy either a 125-degree safe or a 325-degree safe, with 1, 2 or 3 hours’ worth of protection. A 125-degree, 3-hour safe is the strongest and therefore the most expensive. Which one is right for you depends on a range of factors, including how close you are to the fire department. Note that if you’re storing digital files, you’ll need to choose a 125-degree safe to keep them safe.

Use plastic sleeves to protect certain documents

Plastic page sleeves add an extra level of protection against the ravages of time. While a safe will, of course, protect your documents from sunlight, it never hurts to take an extra step to keep files as pristine as possible.

Safety deposit box

So now that you’ve got a few items in your fireproof safe, it’s time to turn to the professionals. In case you need a refresher: This is a highly secure box, typically at a bank, where you can store your valuables. In most cases, the bank will give you a key, and/or require ID and a signature to access what’s inside.

The pros here are that they’re virtually immune to theft and generally protected from natural disasters (or at least more protected than the average home would be). There’s also an added level of security via the bank’s policies—for example, you can designate who will have access to your property in the event of an emergency. Finally, there’s a set-it-and-forget-it element here—store your files here, keep up with your payments, and free your mind to worry about other things.

In related news, a safety deposit box can also be easy to forget about. (Just ask anyone whose childhood baseball card collection is still kept in one.) Keep in mind that, unlike a safe, a safety deposit box will require some planning if you move cities, not to mention the hassle of additional paperwork and potentially another key to keep track of. And then there’s the aforementioned cost—you’ll typically pay an annual fee based on the size of your storage needs.

All of the above makes a safety deposit box ideal for original files, including birth, marriage and adoption certificates; copies of wills (updated to match the original in your safe); important documents related to vehicles or homes you own; original photos or photo negatives. The aforementioned digital copies of important photos and files. Anything else you deem worthy of safe, physical storage.

Pro tip: While you can just go to a bank for your safety deposit box needs, private vaults are also an option, albeit a very Bond villain-sounding one.

Secure online storage

Which brings us to the final piece of the puzzle. More and more, the Internet is becoming a useful—and secure—place to store your important information. For example, LifeSite is a secure online safety deposit box that lets you manage and selectively share all of your family’s critical life information and documents from your phone, tablet and even Amazon Alexa device. Services like LifeSite make it quick and easy for a digital-first generation to get organized.

The first and most obvious advantage to this approach is convenience—you can access and update your essential files from your phone via the service’s app and store physical files by simply snapping a photo with your phone. It’s also easy to share access with family members or advisors, which will make it far less painful to track down documents for traditionally cumbersome processes like a mortgage approval. Services like LifeSite make it easy to store all your files in one place, and control who has access to which. And because it’s digital, it will move with you throughout the years, so you can keep your files updated in real time. Oh, and then it’s fireproof and disaster-proof… obviously.

Thanks to all these advantages, online storage is a great option for busy families and the piles of important documents that go along with them. And while it might be intimidating to use initially for people uncomfortable with technology, most options, LifeSite included, have a simple, intuitive interface.

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Pick the approach (or approaches) that work best for you

As we said, you’ll want to use some combination of the above for your files to maximize (and balance) security, protection and ease of access. Above all, it’s imperative that you take care of this in a prompt fashion, so in the unlikely event of an emergency, your loved ones have easy access to your important info, and to your plans. You know your family the best. Think about what storage and security methods work for your lifestyle and get yourself organized. You owe it to yourself to make sure your important documents are both safe, and easy for your loved ones to find when the time comes. Oh, and don’t forget your password and combo lock.

Louis Wilson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a wide array of publications, both online and in print. He often writes about travel, sports, popular culture, men’s fashion and grooming, and more. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he has developed an unbridled passion for breakfast tacos, with his wife and two children. This article is sponsored by Haven Life Insurance Agency. Opinions are his own.

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