My husband and I keep a small safe in our house for all of our important papers—from our passports to my son’s birth certificate to our social security cards. One afternoon last summer, not long after I had opened the safe to retrieve something, and left the top up, my husband decided to set a full humidifier on top of the open safe—and of course the inevitable happened.
After that seminal moment in our marriage, I spent an interesting hour clothes-pinning all of our important documents up on a makeshift clothesline in our bathroom. I also started looking into whether our safe was the most secure place to keep all of our documents. Aside from the (admittedly unusual) issue of flooding, I needed to know which papers are better placed in a safety deposit box, and which ones are perfectly fine in your average fireproof home safe. This is what I discovered:
Safety Deposit Box
While the movies may have led you to believe that this is where people stash stolen jewelry, hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, fake passports, and other illicit materials, the fact of the matter is that safety deposit boxes are the best place to store any paperwork that you would have trouble replacing.
That list of important documents includes birth, marriage, and death certificates, adoption papers, divorce decrees, citizenship records, military records, deeds, titles, wills, and stock and bond certificates. All of these items are of vital importance, and should be protected against the possibility of fire, flood (ahem), or burglary at your home.
The rent for a safety deposit box is relatively inexpensive, and it offers you security and privacy. (However, you should remember that the items in a safety deposit box are not FDIC insured.) Also, that privacy can end up being a Catch-22, particularly if you make the mistake of keeping your original copy of your will—or other important legal documents—in the box. Safety deposit boxes are sealed after the death of the box-holder, meaning your heirs may not have access to the legal information that proves they are your heirs.
This is part of the reason why every family should have a home safe as well as a safety deposit box. Then you have a safe place at home where you can keep information for your family about accessing your safety deposit box in the event of your death or incapacitation.
The most important information you can place in your home safe is information and instructions for your family regarding where you keep your safety deposit box and how to access it, as well as the contact information for your lawyer, your insurance agent, your financial planner, and your bank. This is all information that could be of vital importance to your family in the event of your death.
In addition to this information, your home safe is also where you will want to store other documents and records that you may need to access more often. Those documents include your social security card, passport, tax information, insurance policies, health records, education records, loan information, employment records, bank statements and other financial documents. The home safe is also a good place to keep photocopies of certain documents, like your driver’s license and birth certificate. Both of those pieces of ID could be important to show in case you lose the original of either. Also, having a photocopy of your child’s birth certificate means that you have his necessary identification for travel and other needs without having to worry about losing the original document.
Veterans should maintain a copy of their DD Form 214 in their home safe, along with the documents required for a military burial. Maintaining these in your home safe will ensure you have access to your proof of military service at a moment’s notice, and ensure your family can arrange for a military burial in the event you pass away.
You should also plan on keeping a copy of your will in both your home safe and your safety deposit box, in addition to keeping a copy at your lawyer’s office. This will mean that your family has all the necessary information available to them.
It goes without saying that your home safe should be fireproof and always kept locked (and not just because of freak humidifier accidents). In addition, make sure you stow the safe in an out-of-the-way spot in your house—the better to keep potential burglars from noticing it.
The Bottom Line
Organizing the paper beast, even when it is not waterlogged, can be overwhelming. But knowing that your important documents are stowed in places where they will be safe but accessible in case of emergency is worth taking the time to do.
Image credit: jovike