Disaster-proofing personal papers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

QUICK. CAN YOU round up your important personal and financial papers in a heartbeat? Do you even know where they all are?

Households searching for peace of mind may want to learn from corporate America and craft a disaster plan that starts with protecting vital records.

The trick is figuring out what to keep safe and where to stash it. And tell a trustworthy person where you've put it. It won't do much good to disaster-proof your documents if you're the only one who knows where they are, and you're not around to retrieve them.

"We've discovered assets a year later," said David Handler, a lawyer at Kirkland & Ellis law firm in Chicago. "We've done a lot of chasing around."

What should you set aside? Here's a quick list of things to protect:

Will, estate plans and power-of-attorney papers.

Titles to vehicles, homes and other real estate.

Personal records such as birth and marriage certificates.

Account information for cash and investments.

Insurance papers.

A safe deposit box is a popular repository, but it's not for everything. It's not advisable to keep your will at the bank if you're the only one who can get to it.

"If a bank knows I'm dead, they are not going to let anyone in the box," Handler said. "The only way to get in is pursuant to a will and guess where that is."

Create a master list of all of your documents and where you've stored them, said Bill Mellander of Allstate Insurance Co. in Northbrook, Ill. This can help cut down on last-minute scrambling should disaster hit. However, refrain from making multiple copies of everything and stashing them all over the place - the last thing you want to do is make yourself susceptible to identity theft.

Here are some choices for safekeeping and the pros and cons of each.

Safe deposit boxes

These are inexpensive to rent, starting as low as $20 a year for the smallest ones. Prices increase with size.

"What should go in a safe deposit box is a detailed list of your most valuable possessions - title to real estate, cars or other property; personal records such as birth and marriage certificates; business or partnership agreements; legal documents; appraisals and stock or bond certificates," said John Hall of the American Bankers Association in Washington.

Accessibility can be an issue since you can only get to the box when the bank is open. And, unless you authorize another person and give him or her a key, you must be present to retrieve the contents.

Keep in mind that safe deposit boxes are water- and fire-resistant, but not indestructible.

Web-based servers

If you want to store a basic inventory list - of items you own, account numbers for insurance, bank accounts and investment holdings - then a Web-based server such as Yahoo mail or Hotmail could do the trick. Unlike information stored on your home computer where you have to be in front of it, you can retrieve details from Yahoo and Hotmail anywhere that you can access the Internet.

The downside: keeping your information safe from hackers and feeling comfortable about having personal and financial details in cyberspace.

Attorney's office

If you have an attorney draft your will and other estate-planning documents, the attorney's office should have originals of the documents.

"We usually keep an original of the will off-site in a fireproof place that we can get to almost anytime," Handler said.

Your will and a power of attorney are two documents that need to be originals, so you'll want to make sure those are in safe, accessible places.

Home safe

Consider a home safe if you want documents at your fingertips. Prices range from $22 to more than $2,000 based on size. But make sure the one you get is fireproof.

What should not be kept in the safes are computer disks, photo negatives or other delicate items. Those can be damaged at a lower temperature than paper, which may sustain heat up to 350 degrees, according to Sentry Safes.

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