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If you had to evacuate your home due to an emergency, such as a flood or fire, would you be able to locate any of your important documents in a hurry? This year alone, hundreds of thousands of people in the United States and people in Japan have had to face devastation brought about by natural forces and found their homes destroyed. They had to go through the grieving process for the loss of loved ones and then begin to look at rebuilding their material world.
Unfortunately, for both the loss of human life and for the loss of material possessions, we are required to present paper documentation. For the human side, we need to be able to present an original of a person's last will and testament, duly signed and witnessed, or have to deal with possibly lengthy and costly courtroom battles.
You will need records to prove the mundane things in life -- that you owned anything, received anything and paid anything. You may find it hard to believe but not everyone who puts a claim in for their destroyed 55-inch HDTV actually had one.
You should have a will prepared and make sure that you keep it in a safe place. I am not aware of any jurisdictions that accept electronic copies of wills so you will need to make sure that the original is somewhere safe. I would suggest that you seal the paper document in some type of waterproof container and then place it in a safe deposit box or safe in some location away from your home. Make certain that relatives know about this location.
You may wish to consider creating electronic copies of all your documents such as insurance policies, marriage certificates, divorce decrees, receipts for major purchases and any list that you can think of. I had one client who felt that it was important that she always have a listing of her medications available, and she was right. Other common lists might be credit card numbers and contact information for customer service, driver's license and passport numbers, and important people in your life. You can easily create these documents with a computer and scanner and transfer them to either a CD or flash drive. Another alternative is to save them online; your email provider likely provides you with a few GB of online storage.
You should also consider taking photos of your home, both interior and exterior. Be sure to snap the photo of all those expensive toys that would need to be replaced someday. Cameras will put a date stamp on the picture but those who are in love with the phrase, "an abundance of caution" can try to capture something with a date on it, such as a newspaper in the same photos.
Most financial institutions offer online services and you will be able to access account statements, sometimes going as far back as seven years. This should make your task somewhat easier.
The IRS will be able to provide copies of previously filed tax returns. You will need to file a form 4506 and if you were living in a location that was a federally declared disaster area, they will waive the fee that they normally charge for copies.
It is very easy to put off taking any of these steps but devoting a few hours to getting organized will pay huge dividends if you ever have to reconstruct your life.
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