Photo credit: Esko Kilpi 6/2013

Just the other evening a massive fire broke out in an old boathouse adjacent to the Helsinki shoreline only a few blocks from where I live. Coincidentally, it happened at the same time that I was on the phone with my parents in Colorado who were reporting on a wildfire that was raging out of control just 40 miles from where they live – a blaze that had quite quickly destroyed 500 homes. As I listened to them tell me about the Colorado devastation, I was watching with my own eyes the speed and ferocity at which a fire can destroy. It immediately got me thinking (and saddened) about all the tragedy we see each year where peoples’ homes and properties are completely decimated and lives lost due to fire or weather related disaster.

Are we really as prepared as we should be?

What kind of records would be needed to rebuild life should this kind of unexpected tragedy hit? What if a family member was injured and needed medical care, would we have the right documents to get the care we needed? What would happen if we lost our mobile phones – would we have quick and easy access to our important contacts?  Would we have the appropriate documents at our fingertips in order to file a claim? Would our loved ones be able to manage our affairs should we be faced with serious injury or die?

Anyhow, I’m not a doom and gloom kind of person but it was definitely a reminder of how fast and furiously fire or other disaster can strike and it also reminded me that I’m far from being as prepared as I should be. So, I decided to do a bit of research and found some good articles and advice about what everyone should have securely and remotely stored (eg. backed up) in the case that a major emergency were to happen. I thought I’d summarize their advice and post it here as it serves as a good reminder for all of us. And at least for me, getting these things more organized will be part of my summer to-do list.

The basics

  • A list of all your important personal and account numbers:  investment, retirement & bank accounts, credit card, insurance policy, driver’s license, social security, passport plus copies (front & back) of the actual cards/documents for you and your family that also show expiration dates etc.
  • A list of contacts: customer service numbers for insurance companies, utility companies, banks – financial advisers, account managers – doctors, dentists, veterinarians – family, friends – teachers and employer – contractor, attorney, accountant, executor of will
  • Current photographs of household members (including pets)
  • Originals + scanned copies of birth, marriage, death certificates, divorce decrees, adoption records, residency and citizenship papers
  • Copy of your wills, your executor, power of attorney and healthcare proxy
  • Originals + scanned copies of insurance policies including homeowners, auto, health, dental, life, long-term care, etc.
  • Originals + scanned copies of deeds for real estate, property and titles for cars and other motor vehicles
  • Originals + scanned copies of loan documents
  • Originals + scanned copies of contracts, leases and mortgages
  • Copies of tax returns, supporting documentation plus any documentation needed for upcoming tax returns.
  • Originals + scanned copies of education records such as diplomas and transcripts
  • Copies of health records especially for persons in the family with chronic conditions.
  • Documentation of important prescriptions including prescribing doctor, pharmacy and dosage.  If the original prescription is not available then taking a photograph of the medication bottle is a good option for recording the prescription details
  • Employment records:  resume, salary history, references
  • Originals + scanned copies of documents related to business ownership and business insurances
  • Military service records
  • Originals and scanned copies of the records for your pet including registration numbers, pet passport, animal shelter or breeder information, health records and prescriptions.

In addition to keeping originals in a safe location that can be carried with you, it’s equally important to have the digital copies accessible in the event of an emergency. However, not on your computer which could get destroyed in the event of a disaster, but in a secure online service such as Arkkeo where they can be safely accessed from wherever you happen to be located during a time of need. Additionally, it is also suggested that you share copies of this information with your attorney and accountant as they are the two professionals who will be most involved with your situation if you do face a major emergency, and/or a family member living far enough away to be out of the emergency zone.

What’s needed to file a claim

Another important piece of documentation to be prepared with is your household inventory. If your personal possessions are damaged or destroyed, the insurance company will most surely ask for an itemization of everything that you lost along with its estimated value.  Unfortunately most of us would never remember all of our possessions (let alone in a totally stressful, crisis situation) without an inventory done in advance so here are some tips for making the process a bit easier.

  • Walk around your house and take photos of each room and its contents. Or if you have a camcorder then a narrated video recording of each room is also a good method for remembering what you own.
  • Don’t forget to estimate the year of purchase and the value of the item and keep a log of it. If you’ve saved receipts then they should be photographed as well and placed with the digital inventory, as should any appraisals you have gotten.
  • If you are already an Arkkeo user and have the Photo+ app then it’s a great idea to use it for capturing photos of your household inventory since they will be automatically uploaded to your Arkkeo account and can be easily organized for future use.
  • It’s a good practice to do a once a year update to your inventory since most of us purchase new items each year that should be included.

What’s needed to make it easier for family members to manage your affairs

None of us want to think about death and the grief associated with it, but the scary reality is that it can happen quite suddenly. And when we go, it’s far better to leave our grieving loved ones with our affairs organized than with stress and confusion over where things are and how we would like certain things to be taken care of in our absence.

Some good advice from several articles was to start by creating a document locator — a list outlining exactly where all of your important records are kept – both the originals and your digital versions. In this locator you should also include the combination for the home lock box (if you have one) and other information that they will need to access your vital records, for example how to access your online files. If you are like me and have an Arkkeo account then it’s easy because once you’ve created all the digital backup of your vital records, then you can securely and privately share it with family members and other key individuals directly from your account.

One thing to consider is that if you’ve got your documents in a box at the bank, you may want to rethink that strategy — safe deposit boxes are often sealed at the time of death, so keep your funeral arrangements and wills someplace more accessible.

And don’t forget the memories

Most of us have years of photos stored already in the Cloud whether it’s with Flickr, iCloud or another service. But what about all the other precious memories and items of sentimental value – love letters, awards and achievements, kids report cards and drawings, baby hand and footprints – the list goes on. It could be equally, if not more, devastating to lose years of beloved memories as it would be to lose your other records. So, while you are capturing the inventory of your home with photos and scanning your records, it’s also a good idea to start scanning or photographing the memories as well.  This is where I’ve also found Arkkeo’s Photo+ app to come in handy. Since I started using Arkkeo, I also started using the app to capture the memories that I want to be certain are protected under any circumstance.

In summary

Dealing with a personal crisis is stressful enough, without the pain of lost paperwork and missing information. But by taking a proactive stance, and a few preventative measures, you can save yourself and your loved ones a great deal of headache and can make the recovery process a lot quicker and easier.

Step 1: Review your records and identify which ones are the most important to you and your family. Use the check list above to guide you.

Step 2:  Make sure you’ve got your home inventory completed.

Step 3: Put originals together in a safe container or home lock box that you can take with you.

Step 4: Make copies (electronic preferably) of these records for active use and to serve as a back-up if the originals are destroyed. Keep an electronic backup in a secure online location (like Arkkeo) and share with key people in your life.

Step 5: Make sure everyone who should know how to access these records knows how to do so. Likewise, make sure that you keep the records as secure as possible. This is personal and confidential information that you do not want just anyone to gain access to.

Thanks to Princeton University Records and Virginia Tech University, AARP.org for excellent articles and advice on the subject. Photo credit: Esko Kilpi 6/2013