Your Vital Records (and Why You Should Care Now)
Updated: Jul 21
Do you know exactly where your most important personal documents are? Let’s face it: we’re living through an existential crisis and need to be prepared for anything.
Vital records are the most critical, significant and indispensable documents about you and your family. You've probably needed them more often than you realize: when applying for a driver's license (a passport or a birth certificate) or citizenship (resident or green card), executing a will (a death certificate) or changing a name (perhaps a marriage or divorce record). And vital records are often difficult, time consuming or impossible to replace, especially in an emergency.
Rather than wait for something to happen, it makes sense to locate your vital records and create a system to file and store them in a safe place, so when you need them you know exactly where to look.
Here’s a list of typical vital records. I’ve started with the most common. It’s not all-inclusive, but many will apply to you and your family:
Typical Vital Records
Marriage certificates, birth certificates, death certificates, divorce certificates, adoption papers, custody agreements, resident or green card, immigration documents, name change records
Social Security cards (original), passports, military records
Legal documents such as wills, living wills, powers of attorney, health care proxies
Titles (property titles), property deeds (e.g. especially if you live in a place where evacuations are likely), records of outstanding mortgages and debts (as well as due dates and contact information)
Insurance policies, such as auto, homeowners, property and life insurance, and agent contact information
Financial papers relating to investments, retirement accounts, bank accounts and related contact information; savings bonds (recent account statements can be obtained easily from your banks and investment firms)
Medical information including critical prescriptions, pharmacy contacts, doctor contacts
Partnership or corporate agreements
Education diplomas and records
Baptism or other religious certificates
Safe deposit box keys
A Home Inventory – if you don’t have one, now's the right time to make one. A home inventory provides evidence of your tangible personal property and physical assets, which is invaluable for insurance and estate planning.
If your family's history is important to you, consider adding family photos (digital copies), family memorabilia and genealogy records with your vital records list too.
Once you've identified your vital records, it's time to collect them all in one place and keep them organized. Here are recommendations for managing them:
How to Archive and Store Your Vital Records
Compile a master list of your vital records. Store the list on your computer, with back ups available in multiple locations, and a print-out as well.
Store original documents offsite in a safe place such as a bank safety deposit box. You want to keep this information safe. Why? To protect your identity. Exceptions: any original document you may need on short notice or in an emergency (e.g. a passport, wills, powers of attorney, health care proxies).
Keep duplicate copies at home for easy access. Make multiple copies of each document, including hard copies and digital. Backup digital copies in multiple locations like a thumb drive, external hard drive or in the “cloud” (consider privacy and security when selecting a cloud storage provider). **You may also want to consider storing your copies at home in a fireproof safe as an added precaution. These are important identification documents. You don't want them destroyed in a disaster or stolen by thieves. TIP: I use a portable fireproof safe – it’s easy to grab in a pinch if, for any reason, I need to quickly evacuate.
Read this terrific New York Times article with tips for digitizing home documents.
Two more suggestions: 1) consider keeping copies of your driver’s license, registration, and the contents of your wallet (copy both sides) with your vital records and 2) keep extra cash in case of emergency. You’ll definitely be happy if you lose your wallet.
Your family's vital records are critical to your life. It's important to know where to find them when you need them.
If you have questions, let me know. If you’d like personal guidance, I'm here to help. Sign up for a free 30-minute consult. I can get you started on a home inventory, too.
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