Storing Important Documents Best Practices for Physical and Electronic Storage of Identification, Health Records, Legal Documents and More

Written By: SafeHome.org Team | Published: August 11, 2020

Life goes a lot easier if you keep important documents such as your passport, birth certificate and vaccination records handy, but there isn’t one “right” way to store them. You know your needs and life circumstances best, so use the “whys” of storage to inform the “how.” Examples of whys could be:

  • General storage solution
  • Easy “grab and go” in a high-risk disaster area
  • Electronic storage to cut down on paper
  • Protection against fire and water
  • Protection against theft
  • For legal processes after your death
  • Preservation of longtime family documents and photos for future generations

The best practices mix physical storage (a safe, safe deposit box, etc.), the cloud and a thumb drive/external hard drive. This guide explains which documents to keep and takes you through the various storage options.

Table of Contents

Documents to Keep

The major documents for your family to keep, especially if you are fleeing a disaster, include these:

  • Driver’s licenses
  • Birth certificates
  • Lists of medications you’re taking, any conditions you have and medical equipment you use
  • Vaccination records
  • Social Security cards
  • Passports
  • Adoption papers
  • Citizenship papers
  • Marriage, divorce and child custody papers
  • Military ID and military discharge paperwork
  • A list of each type of insurance coverage, the policy number and contact details
  • Inventory of household possessions

Some can be digitized, but retain your original birth certificate or a certified copy. Really, go original with any document verifying your identity (passport, driver’s license, military ID, Social Security card, etc.). Original documents also help prove your legal status or relationship to another person (adoption papers, child custody papers, etc.).

If you have pets, include their vaccination/medical records, ID chip numbers and updated pictures.

Otherwise, the important documents to keep fall into six categories. The specific number increases or decreases a bit, depending on who you ask.

  1. Legal identification and vital records

    • Birth certificates
    • Passports
    • Adoption paperwork
    • Social Security cards
    • Citizenship documents (green card, naturalization paperwork, etc.)
    • Driver’s license
    • Military ID
  2. Tax (often for the past three to seven years)

    • Tax returns
    • W-2s and 1099 forms
    • Receipts, records and other tax-related forms

    The IRS website explains that, for many people, it’s enough to keep the past three years’ worth of tax documents. However, the agency advises folks to store relevant paperwork indefinitely if they don’t file a return or if they file a fraudulent return. People filing a claim for a loss from worthless securities or bad debt deduction should keep their records for seven years.1

  3. Medical

    • Vaccination/immunization records
    • Personal health history that includes medications you’re taking
    • Any personal care plans such as an asthma action plan or food allergy and anaphylaxis care plan2
    • Health insurance policies (at least a list of each type of coverage, the policy number and contact details)
    • Living wills, wills, powers of attorney, burial instructions
    • Medical bills

    Your personal health history (also called personal medical history) gives an overview of your medical conditions, the treatment you’re receiving for them and how effectively they’re being controlled. It also outlines critical information such as past hospitalizations, surgeries and accidents. Johns Hopkins Medicine also suggests retaining a family health history, doctor visit summaries, test results and insurance forms, among others.3

  4. Estate Planning

    • Prenuptial agreements
    • Wills
    • Trusts
    • Funeral/burial instructions
    • Powers of attorney
    • Attorney names and phone numbers

    The “Medical” and “Estate Planning” categories have overlap potential. That’s OK. The main thing is to make your estate planning documents accessible to the right people.

    One practice is to create a list of where important documents are stored. AARP has an example you can tailor to your needs. Since this list contains a lot of sensitive information, it must also be securely stored. A home safe is one option. Alternatively, you can digitize the list and keep it on a thumb drive. Just make sure someone else knows about it and can access it if need be.

  5. Property

    • Rental or lease agreements
    • Mortgage statements, bills, deeds of sale
    • Two-page settlement statement from title company showing house cost and purchase expenses
    • Vehicle, boat or RV registrations and titles
    • Insurance policies
    • List of household inventory (include videos and photos as needed)
  6. Financial

    • List of each financial account (savings, checking, CD, credit card, retirement, etc.), account numbers and institutions. You may want to include account usernames and passwords
    • Pay stubs
    • Canceled checks
    • Disability or unemployment records
    • Retirement/pension plan records
    • Investment statements

    Many of these are already digital, which lessens the amount of physical paperwork to deal with.

    In some situations, you’re fine keeping just the previous year’s documentation, for example, one year’s worth of pay stubs, canceled checks and monthly retirement/investment statements. Once you get your yearly investment summary, dispose of the monthly statements. Keep yearly statements for as long as you have the account plus seven years.

    Store anything that pertains to taxes, including canceled checks and unemployment records, for at least three years. Do seven years if you’re in doubt about whether three years are enough.

  7. Legal/Personal/Family/Other

    • List of where documents are stored
    • Legal documents not covered above
    • Usernames and passwords for online accounts
    • Valuable or sentimental photos and letters
    • Fingerprints and dental records

    There’s a lot of discretion in this category. For instance, you may not want to store fingerprint and dental records—that’s fine. Likewise, family photos might not interest you. The five items listed are just examples.

Don’t put all of your eggs (originals and copies) in one basket. Otherwise, you risk losing everything at once.

Scenario: John uses a thumb drive to make copies of important documents. He keeps the originals and the thumb drive in his fire-resistant, water-resistant home safe.

Problem: An especially bad fire destroys the contents of the safe. John loses his originals and the copies.

Two alternatives: Cloud storage in addition to thumb drive storage; storing the thumb drive in a separate location such as a bank safe deposit box

Do proceed carefully if you make (or obtain) copies of personally identifying documents such as your birth certificate and Social Security card.

  • The potential for identity theft is high if these documents fall into the wrong hands. Avoid making copies if possible, especially digital copies.
  • It’s OK to have a certified copy of your birth certificate, especially if there’s a reasonable possibility you will use it soon. Otherwise, there’s no need to have the original plus multiple copies laying around.

Physical Storage

Here’s a look at the various options for physical storage. They include fire-resistant safes, safety deposit boxes and filing cabinets.

Fire-resistant, water-resistant safe (portable)

Good, all-around storage solution

  • Offers protection against fires, floods and water leaks
  • Good solution for general document storage
  • Some safes have room for hanging file folders
  • Can be well-hidden
  • Offers some protection against prying eyes and theft

As Nick Guy with Wirecutter explains, “Document safes are meant to provide protection from fire, water, and to a degree, theft, for people who wish to keep important belongings safe in an office or at home. They’re best for important documents—such as passports or birth certificates—or small items like hard drives or USB sticks. Most people can find good use for a fireproof safe, whether they want to be ready for travel or major financial transactions or just want to add an extra layer of safety for a drive full of treasured photos.”4

Going further, Larry McKenna with the U.S. Fire Administration advises, “Get the best [safe] you can afford.”

  • The Honeywell 1104 performs great and costs about $125. It should keep your documents intact for up to an hour in temperatures as high as 1,700 °F. It also keeps water out for 24 hours (important since water is used to put out fire). This safe is about the width of a mini-refrigerator and weighs 56 pounds. It doesn’t use a digital keypad, instead requiring a physical key. Replacement keys are available from Honeywell if your original gets lost or damaged.
  • If you have a lot of documents or prioritize organization, another option is the Honeywell 1108. It holds hanging file folders but is a bear to move at 80 pounds. It also costs more, at $160.
  • Some safes such as the First Alert 2037F and First Alert 2602DF are rated to protect your documents for only 30 minutes in a fire up to 1,550 °F. They cost about $50 to $60 less than their Honeywell counterparts but take up less space. Go with higher UL ratings unless money and space are huge factors.
  • Place your safe in the basement, if possible, so it doesn’t fall through floors during a fire.

You have a few options to take document protection one step further. One is to use plastic page slips to safeguard against wear and tear, liquid spills or sunlight (mostly for when the documents are outside of the safe). You can even put these documents in a three-ring binder for quicker escape in case of a disaster—more on this soon.

Another option is to keep the documents in fire- and water-resistant bags inside the safe. The bags themselves offer fire and water protection but not as much as a safe. Still, when combined, they provide another layer of defense. They’re also easy to grab for a quick exit before a disaster hits.

Fire-resistant, water-resistant bags

If you drive often with documents in the vehicle; when there’s a high chance of upcoming emergencies or disasters; when combined with a safe or safety deposit box as another layer of defense against fire and water

  • Extremely portable in disaster scenarios
  • Good when transporting documents
  • Can combine with other storage options such as a safe
  • Some fire and water protection, especially against car fires
  • Little security against theft and prying eyes
  • Not the safest long-term solution by itself, especially against house fires

We already touched on fire- and water-resistant bags so won’t repeat much. It does bear saying that banks transporting cash and sensitive documents put them in these types of bags. Otherwise, the goodies could go up in flames if a fiery crash occurs.

Fire-resistant bags do not offer the same level of protection that fire-resistant safes do, so combine them with another storage method when possible.

Some of the bags are pretty small, while others are larger. One of the larger bags (BLOKKD brand) offers fire resistance for 30 minutes up to 1,300 °F and features locking zippers to keep children out.5

Three-ring binder with plastic sleeves

Portability during emergencies or disasters

  • Extremely portable in disaster scenarios
  • Can combine with other storage options such as a safe
  • Good for organization
  • No security against theft and prying eyes
  • Not the safest long-term solution

Binders are easy to include in grab and go bags (also called go-bags or bug-out bags). If your area is likely to be evacuated soon for, say, a hurricane, fire or earthquake, insert your most important documents into the binder sleeves. They’re ready to go in a hurry.

Don’t feel comfortable keeping documents in a go-bag? Combine the binder with a safe for easy transfer to a go-bag.

Safety deposit box

Could be one part of an overall storage strategy; if you have no concerns about paying rent on time; if home security or disasters are an issue

  • Offsite so you don’t need to worry about your home’s security
  • Good for documents you don’t need regular access to
  • DO NOT use to store passports, a living will, durable power of attorney or health care proxy, or the original of your will
  • Available only during the bank’s regular hours
  • Access after your death can be tricky unless you take certain steps
  • Doesn’t provide 100% protection against a massive flood
  • Costs range from about $40 to a few hundred dollars per year
  • No FDIC insurance
  • Banks may mishandle or throw out items

Unfortunately, safe deposit boxes aren’t as safe as you might think. In fact, Jerry Pluard, the president of a Chicago company that insures safe deposit boxes, estimates that about 33,000 boxes a year are harmed by accidents, natural disasters and thefts.6

That said, the odds of your items staying intact are in your favor. (Remember to pay your rent on time!) Safety deposit boxes remain a relatively good bet for storing many types of important documents, including these:

  • Deeds and titles
  • Original birth and marriage certificates
  • Divorce papers
  • Adoption papers
  • Citizenship papers
  • Military discharge papers
  • Inventory of household possessions
  • U.S. savings bonds and stock and bond certificates
  • Hard drives and flash drives
  • Copies of wills and powers of attorney (not the originals)

Use a home safe or another accessible storage method for passports. Do this even if you don’t travel out of the country frequently. Why forego a spur-of-the-moment trip just because of banking hours?

Safe deposit boxes don’t offer 100% protection in the eventuality of a massive flood, so put your documents in water-resistant bags (also called fire-resistant bags) or zippered plastic bags. If you also store jewelry and high-value items, be aware that FDIC insurance doesn’t apply. Get homeowners insurance or a policy rider to cover these items.

Tell your attorney and/or heirs about the safe deposit box so they know to access it in case of your death. Fortunately, you can have a co-signer with the same powers you retain, but the general lack of access is why you shouldn’t store a living will, durable power of attorney or health care proxy, or your original will in a safe deposit box. These documents are of little use if no one can get to them.

Filing cabinet

Good for many types of financial and legal documents

  • Locks provide some theft protection
  • Lots of space for bigger documents, including financial
  • Most filing cabinets don’t offer water and fire resistance, but some do

Physical filing systems act as another layer in document storage, especially for financial and legal documents. They offer more space and organization, but in the long term, you may prefer an external hard drive and/or the cloud. There’s less chance of theft and a lesser amount of physical paperwork to keep around.

However, if something is tax-related, keep the originals whenever possible (it’s fine to make copies). For instance, original gas receipts are more authoritative than digital photos of the receipts.

Many filing cabinets are not fire- and water-resistant. Some are, though—you just have to make a point to buy them. (Don’t expect the first filing cabinet you see at your local office supply store to be fire-resistant.) Check the UL rating and the ETL Electronic Media rating.

Proceed with Caution if Using These Solutions

The following solutions are not necessarily best practices, but they’re common enough. In some situations, they even make perfect sense. Just know what you’re potentially getting into.

Lawyer’s office

  • Legal papers are more accessible at home
  • Documents could get lost if changes occur at your lawyer’s firm
  • Helpful if you have security or privacy issues at home
  • Documents are unlikely to get destroyed
  • Can speed up probate

Thanks to the advent of home safes, it’s less common these days to have your lawyer store your estate planning paperwork, original will and other legal documents. Firms such as Gudorf Law in Ohio recommend that clients use a home safe or fire-resistant box to store these documents. The firm does scan and make copies that are accessible via the online client portal.7

A major downside to storing documents at your lawyer’s office: They could fall through the cracks if your lawyer (or even someone else in the practice) retires, dies or otherwise leaves.

However, you may have reasons to store the papers at your lawyer’s office. Perhaps you don’t trust your family, or your house has been broken into multiple times. Talk with your lawyer about how the documents will be stored and if there’s a written policy on retention and disposal. Remember to tell your executor where the will is stored.

Some states such as Ohio allow you to keep your original will (and trust documents) at the office of the probate court judge.

Fake, hollow book

  • Don’t count on it for water and fire resistance
  • Primary focus may be decoration, not security
  • Extremely versatile and portable

Some fake books are hollow, with no locking mechanism. Others have locks and somewhat double as safes. Either type lets you store important documents in plain sight, whether the fake book is in your bedroom, office or college dorm room.

Fake books are extremely portable, but don’t expect them to protect your documents in a fire or flood. Burglars can spot them easily enough, too.

Fire-resistant, water-resistant home safe (not portable)

  • Focus is anti-theft, with document storage secondary
  • Large and can be a hassle to install
  • Potential overkill just for document storage
  • Offers protection against fires, floods and water leaks

Many non-portable safes such as wall safes, hidden safes and anchored safes offer fire and water resistance but double-check the safe’s UL (Underwriters Laboratories) rating. You want a minimum of 30 minutes’ protection in a fire up to 1,550 °F.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with non-portable safes, per se. They’re just not necessary if you’re looking for a document storage solution. Go portable for more versatility and less hassle.

Another thing: Many non-portable safes can be carried out of your home by determined burglars. They’re not as secure as you might think. Try to store your documents separately from high-value items.

Indoor self-storage units

  • Questionable fire, water and pest resistance
  • Requires payment
  • Access may be available only during regular business hours
  • Could work for some types of business document storage
  • Lots of space for family documents, photos and books
  • Climate-controlled storage is an option

Self-storage may make sense if you have a large amount of business documents or family photos and documents. Find a climate-controlled unit, and make backup digital copies of anything you don’t want to lose.

Electronic Storage

Electronic document storage means portability and accessibility. For example, you can make multiple copies of important documents to access from anywhere (and decrease the amount of paper you keep around).

Email

OK in the short term during emergencies or disasters; OK for family photos and other documents that don’t require security

Email is perhaps the simplest method of electronic storage but isn’t too secure. Scan a document or take a picture of it and email the file to yourself.8

Make sure the photo files are clear.

Secure your devices and email account. Anyone who gets into your account could potentially have access to your driver’s license number, Social Security number and other information.

Try not to use email for long-term document storage. There are too many ways it could go wrong, but email does come in handy during emergencies. Set strong, unique locks/passwords, and feel free to use a password manager.

Thumb drives and external hard drives

Good as one part of an overall storage strategy; reducing the amount of paper; during emergencies or disasters

Thumb drives and external hard drives reduce paper clutter and don’t require that you email important documents to yourself. Just scan a document and save it to the drive (or save it from a website to the drive).

Store your drives separately from document originals, especially if you don’t use cloud storage. Otherwise, you risk losing everything in case of fire or theft.

  • Keep your files secure with password protection and encryption.
  • Too many repeated attempts to break into the drive could result in files being erased (as a security measure), so beware of using an external drive to store an only copy.
  • Keep external drives somewhere secure such as a safe or safe deposit box. Even a locked home office drawer is better than an unlocked drawer.

Device storage (on the phone, computer or tablet)

OK for emergencies or disasters

Device storage is arguably the simplest digital solution of them all, maybe beating even email. Use your phone or tablet to take a photo of a document and keep the copy right on the device.

This method may be necessary during disasters, but don’t use it as a long-term solution. It’s easy enough for your files and photos to fall into the wrong hands via theft, loss, hacking or even just a nosy acquaintance. At all times, secure your smartphone the best you can.

  • Dropping your phone or laptop could render your copies no good.
  • There’s a chance that your files are being synced or backed up (without your knowledge) to a cloud service that isn’t secure enough.
  • It’s possible your files are stored on a memory card instead of on the device. The card might not be password-protected, especially if you didn’t realize sensitive information was stored on it.

Device storage is not as risky when the device in question is your computer that stays put. It never goes out; it never leaves home. A hard drive crash could still destroy your documents, though. Either way, password protect your folders and use encryption software to safeguard against malware.

Cloud storage

OK for some important or sentimental documents; reducing the amount of paper

First things first: Don’t use cloud storage to keep digital copies of your birth certificate, Social Security card and other identifying information. (If you must have digital copies, go with thumb drives or external hard drives.)

That said, cloud storage is a smart solution for many document types, especially if you run a business. You reduce the amount of paper kept around and can access cloud files from anywhere as long as you have an internet connection. Fire, water, theft and the like are less of a concern, but take the appropriate cybersecurity protocols.

Cloud storage is a good choice for documents that are important because they’re sentimental. For instance, you might have too many old newspaper clippings, grade school certificates and family photos to keep in your home. A common option is to use a mobile scanning app for scanning and uploading to the cloud (plus an external hard drive). Put the physical originals in storage, give them to someone who wants them or even dispose of them.9

Disposing of Important Documents

Good document storage includes good disposal. After all, any document sitting in a garbage can is at risk. Shred the documents you’re disposing of, be they ATM receipts, bank statements, copies of your birth certificate, credit card bills, legal paperwork, property transactions, medical records, password lists or utility bills. If you don’t own a shredder (or even if you do), many communities hold document shred days at the same time as drug takeback days. Many office stores offer document shredding, too.

If you’re selling, giving away, recycling or donating a computer, conduct a hard drive wipe. A factory reset isn’t quite secure enough.

Similarly, Apple support explains what to do before you give away, sell or trade in your device. You have several options for Android devices, too (read up on Google and NordVPN tips).

Storing Important Documents

Ordinarily, you don’t get important documents all at once. Rather, they come in trickles, with one or two documents here and there over the years. You may also need to store your children’s (and spouse’s and pets’) documents. It’s easy to lose track of all these items and their locations. A master list outlining these locations helps, but be sure to store the list securely, too.

Best practices involve physical storage in addition to thumb drive/external hard drive storage and the cloud. You may need to keep your most important documents portable in case you leave home quickly.

Additional Resources

Replacing Lost or Damaged Documents: Moving Forward

Protect Your Critical Documents and Valuables: Be Smart in an Emergency

The Best Mobile Scanning Apps: Adobe Scan and Other Apps

Health Paperwork: Action and Care Plans, Vital Records and More

References and Footnotes

  1. How Long Should I Keep Records? (Updated 2020, May 28). Internal Revenue Service. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.irs.gov/businesses/small-businesses-self-employed/how-long-should-i-keep-records
  2. Personal Health: Paperwork. (2020, April 13). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/cpr/prepareyourhealth/Paperwork.htm
  3. Medical Records: Getting Organized. (n.d.). Johns Hopkins Medicine. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/medical-records-getting-organized
  4. The Best Fireproof Document Safe. (Updated 2020, January 03). Wirecutter. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/reviews/best-fireproof-document-safe/
  5. Products to Secure Your Most Precious Possessions. (n.d.). Popular Science. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.popsci.com/security-products-safes-for-documents-valuables/
  6. Cowley, S. (2019, July 19). Safe Deposit Boxes Aren't Safe. The New York Times. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/19/business/safe-deposit-box-theft.html
  7. Should You Keep Your Will at Your Lawyer's Office? (2019, May 10). Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.daytonestateplanninglaw.com/keep-will-at-lawyers-office/
  8. Hodge, R. (2020, July 28). Help Yourself Recover Missing Documents after a Disaster. CNET. Retrieved August 04, 2020, from https://www.cnet.com/how-to/help-yourself-recover-missing-documents-after-a-disaster/
  9. Biersdorfer, J.D. (2020, April 01). How to Digitize Your Most Important Documents. The New York Times. Retrieved August 05, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/01/technology/personaltech/digitizing-important-documents.html

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