When disaster strikes, being able to access your personal documents is an important step in recovering from an emergency. Renting a safe deposit box, buying a fire-resistant file holder, or storing your documents online can give you peace of mind.

By Sheryl Geerts
Updated April 17, 2020

Although no one wants to dwell on natural disasters, accidents, or fires that can potentially harm your home, planning for the worst can give you peace of mind. One way to prepare for emergencies is to make sure you have your financial documents, medical records, and important contact information stored in a secured location that's easily accessible. Knowing how to store your important documents in a secure and accessible manner will help you avoid additional stress during the difficult days following a disaster.

To understand which documents are the most important, think about which ones you would want to protect if you suddenly had to evacuate your home. Documents such as wills, trusts, living wills, medical directives, life insurance policies, divorce records, and real estate deeds are just some of the physical items that should be safely kept. A checklist from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can help you collect this important information.

Once you’ve gathered your important documents, it’s time to store both paper and electronic copies of these files in safe locations. There are many ways to protect documents that you'd never want to lose. Some people rent a safe deposit box at a bank, while others prefer to keep things at home in a fire-resistant safe. Internet-savvy consumers often choose a cloud-based storage solution.

What's the best option for you? It depends on how worried you are about fire damage, theft, and accessibility. Many people choose to use a combination of storage options for important documents to maximize security, protection, and ease of access. Here's what you should know about safe deposit boxes, at-home storage options, and online document storage.

Credit: John Granen 

Rent a Safe Deposit Box

Bank safe deposit boxes are an especially secure way to store important records. The bank verifies your signature against the one on your rental contract before you can view the box's contents, never leaves anyone unattended inside the vault, and requires two keys to open your box (yours and the bank's guard key). What's more, these boxes are kept in an alarmed, steel, or concrete vault that has motion sensors, video cameras, heat detectors, and other security devices. After all, it's the same vault that the bank uses to store its records and money. To make sure your vault will be secure, ask the bank about its security policy.

The main disadvantage of renting a safe deposit box is that you can only access it when the bank is open, so you wouldn't want to put anything inside that you might need in an emergency, such as your passport or burial instructions. Accessibility also becomes an issue during a pandemic when banks might limit walk-in access to banking services.

Another downside is that your safe deposit box is sealed upon your death. So if your original will is in the box, rather than in your house or at your attorney's office, it might take a long time for your executor to get their hands on it. States have different laws regulating access to a safe deposit box after the owner's death, so ask the bank if a court order or other official action is required for someone to open your safe deposit box upon your death. A power of attorney document that designates who should have access to your safe deposit box won't do the trick. Also, if you rent a box with your spouse, child, or someone else, the other individual should sign the bank's rental contract as a joint renter.

Of course, there's no guarantee that a natural disaster won't destroy or damage your bank and its safe deposit boxes. If damage should occur, FDIC insurance doesn't cover the contents of your safe deposit box. If you’re concerned about the safety or replacement of your items, consult your insurance agent to determine if your belongings are covered under your homeowner’s insurance policy.

If you rent a safe deposit box, remember to keep a list of what's inside. Annual rental fees start at $20, depending on the size of the box.

Credit: David Tsay

Store Your Documents at Home

If you want to keep your financial papers out of reach from others in your home, it doesn't cost much to buy a lockable file cabinet. Spend a bit more to buy a large fire-resistant file box, file cabinet, or safe to give yourself more protection from theft and fire. FEMA recommends storing electronic copies of important documents in a password-protected format on a removable flash drive or external hard drive within a fireproof and water-resistant box or safe.

Any item that claims to be fire-resistant should have a rating from Underwriters Laboratories indicating how long the item's interior remains protected during a fire. The shortest time is a half-hour; the longest time is four hours.

When evaluating different fire-resistant items, consider what you might put inside that requires protection: Paper burns at 450 degrees F, but temperatures as low as 125 degrees F can damage computer disks and audio/visual media. An item's UL class rating reflects how much heat it can withstand: Class 125 protects digital media; Class 150 protects film, magnetic tape, and videotapes; Class 350 protects paper documents, fabric, and metals (coins, jewelry, etc.). If you live in a flood-prone area, invest in something that's water-resistant as well as fire-resistant. Prices range from $40 for a small fire-resistant box to $2,000+ for a fire-resistant file cabinet.

If theft is a concern, you might want to buy a floor safe or a wall safe—they're easier to conceal than a freestanding safe. A safe that you can bolt to a closet shelf or the floor is typically difficult to steal, especially if you opt to pay a pro to install your safe in cement. But unless you have $1 million in cash or thousands of dollars of jewelry in your house, anything bulky and heavy is likely to successfully deter a burglar—especially something that weighs too much for the thief to carry.

A fire-resistant storage solution isn't the best bet for collections of paper items, such as stamps or comic books, which could be browned by the fire or damaged by water from the firefighters' hoses. Instead, store these collections in a safe deposit box.

Credit: Kritsada Panichgul

Use Online Document Storage

Another way to make sure your digital documents are secure is to use online document storage. As long as you have an Internet connection, a cloud storage account such as Dropbox, Google Drive, and Microsoft OneDrive gives you convenient 24/7 access to your documents wherever you are and on any compatible device. Cloud storage makes sharing critical documents with family members quick and easy. You can simply organize your documents in one place and provide relatives a digital “key” to your information. It's also a good way to back up all your digital content, like cherished photos. Using online technology does have its risks from potential hackers, however, so consider using password protection options on your documents. You can also use electronic encryption to protect sensitive information.

The option you choose to store your important documents is up to you. Just make sure your important records are both secure and easily accessible for your family members to find in case of an emergency.


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