With recent natural disaster stories top of mind, North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension specialists warn that a little foresight can prevent the loss of valuable, hard-to-replace documents.

"Organizing financial records and documents takes time, but the peace of mind that comes from accomplishing this task is invaluable," says Debra Pankow, family economics specialist. She says that every family should ask these questions:

  • If the person who handles the finances becomes incapacitated or dies, would the person taking over have easy access to important documents and information?
  • Would the family and/or business keep running smoothly during this transition?
  • What frustrations would someone experience if he or she had to become the accountant or business manager for the family or business?
    Financial experts recommend storing documents in three separate locations: a safe-deposit box at a bank or credit union, a fireproof safe at home and with an attorney, relative or friend. Consider these tips for organizing your financial records:
  • A safe-deposit box at a bank or credit union is the best place to store hard-to-replace documents. These include automobile titles, birth and death certificates, personal property inventory, property deeds, marriage documents, stock/bond certificates and legal documents.
    Note that banks and credit unions legally can "seal" your box upon notification of your death, and getting the box unsealed takes a court order. So visit with your bank/credit union and your family to ensure that everyone understands how to access the box upon your death or incapacitation.
  • A fireproof safe or box at home works well for storing canceled checks, recent tax records, insurance policies, a living will, power of attorney, your original will, trust documents, warranties and a list of what you have stored in your safe-deposit box. When investing in a fireproof safe, buy one that is large enough to store your important documents but small enough to move by yourself if you have to evacuate your home.
  • The third place to store original documents or copies is with an attorney, relative or friend. Duplicates also should be stored in your fireproof box at home or in a safe-deposit box. Make a list of what you have stored and its location. Indicate whether it is the original or a duplicate.
Another important aspect of organizing financial records is to set up a financial info binder for quick reference to your financial standing, Pankow says. An organized binder will help you manage your financial affairs and also will help the person managing for you if you become temporarily incapacitated or die.

To compile a financial information binder, you'll need a three-ring binder, at least 16 index dividers and clear page protectors. Label the dividers with titles that are important to your family or business finances. The following can be included: financial goals list, personal directory, professional directory, personal property inventory, financial statements, cash-flow statement, spending plan, bank and brokerage accounts, list of credit cards including toll-free phone numbers, Social Security benefits statements, location of documents, acquisition and sale of assets, income tax information, paycheck stubs and credit reports.

Be sure to store each document in a page protector under the correct category.

The binder will be used often, so using page protectors to keep the documents clean and in good shape is important.

In the personal directory section, list each family member and friend who should be notified in the event of a death in your family. Include the executor of your will and the location of your burial plot. Also include the Social Security and military discharge numbers of your immediate family members. These numbers will provide quick reference information if you or your representative need to apply for benefits.

In your professional directory, include your employer and spouse's employer and every professional involved in your affairs, including your physician, dentist, clergy, lawyer, accountant, insurance agent, banker, financial agent and real estate agent. This list, along with your personal directory, will be helpful to your representative in the event of accident or death.

Store a copy of your financial notebook in a fireproof box, with a friend or in a safe-deposit box and keep the original on hand for the ongoing management of your financial affairs.

For more info, see "Family Records: What to Keep Where and For How Long" at www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/yf/fammgmt/fe445.pdf and "Inventory of Important Papers" at www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/yf/fammgmt/fe446.pdf.
-- North Dakota State University