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Your Important Papers: What to Keep and Where

This guide offers a personalized and efficient system for preserving and safeguarding important family papers. Also provides a handy reference for deciding what items to keep.

Last Updated: 04/17
by by Marsha Goetting, Ph.D., CFP®, CFCS, Professor and Extension Economics Specialist; Keri Hayes, MSU Extension Economics Publications Assistant; and Katelyn Andersen, Ravalli County Extension Agent


in your life calls for a fresh look at the types of records and papers you should be keeping. If you have recently married, divorced, had a baby, bought a house, are attending college or are recently widowed, now is the time to update your important papers. New roles and responsibilities call for new ways of keeping personal records.

Households should be viewed as mini-businesses since many of the functions of planning, purchasing and record keeping are the same as they are for any other type of business, large or small. Keeping financial records are a vital part of your life. They are a key to your credit standing, essential to help you save money on taxes, and provide a continuing indication of your financial progress.

A systematic plan for keeping track of important papers which come into your home can save hours of anxious searching, can help preserve peace and harmony and make it easier to cope with emergency situations.

Record-keeping, however, is more than merely a matter of neatness and order. Legal and safety factors enter in as well. Some records and papers can be kept in a home file for ready access, while others should be left with your attorney or placed in a safe-deposit box or in a fireproof, waterproof, and burglar-proof home safe. A good rule to follow is to keep the item at home unless it is a legal document that is difficult to replace or duplicate. In that case it should be kept in a safe-deposit box or left with your attorney.

Plan and evaluate the need for storage of all papers to determine which ones should be discarded and which ones should be stored and where. Make your decisions and file each paper accordingly. Do not just stack papers and plan to return to them later. This is one way papers become lost and cause you to waste valuable time in searching for or replacing them.


Home Filing System

A home filing system with space for the important documents is the key to managing the mass of family papers. Items to be kept at home do not call for fancy filing cabinets or for special "offices." A "business corner" can be set up in any room in the house. A cardboard drawer or metal box can serve adequately for storage of bills and family papers. Filing systems must be set up to meet your needs. Detailed files may not be necessary at the present time. But remember, every type of important paper should be assigned a certain space and kept there until needed.

The following guide to record-keeping will help you work out a personalized and efficient system for preserving and safeguarding important family papers.

Moreover, it will provide a handy reference for deciding what items to keep, why you need to keep them, where they should be kept and how long to keep them.

If you are new to filing your papers, get organized by creating files in advance. Make a folder for every section listed in this publication. When the time arises to add the information or paper work, you are more likely to file the information rather than add it to a pile of papers. If your family travels frequently or has critical medical needs, prepare a file for each family member for doctor’s records, past dental records, immunization records, etc. for quick reference and travel purposes.

You will note that duplicate copies of many family papers should be kept at home for immediate reference. Important reasons for storing some family papers at certain locations are explained beside each category. However, you must make the final decision about where you will store your documents. Remember that these are your records and you must make the ultimate decision of what is best for you and your family. There may be areas where you need to be more detailed or less detailed depending on your stage in life.


Permanent and Semi-Permanent Records

Many records should be kept for long periods of time. Before you decide to toss any out, look them over carefully to see if any are permanent or semi-permanent records. Keep these types of records in a safe deposit box or a fireproof, waterproof, burglar-proof home safe – with a list of the contents of the box in your home file. Because of the danger of identity theft consider destroying any documents you decide that are out-dated and should be discarded. Important data is also important to destroy: name, address, Social Security Number, debit/credit card numbers. Go through credit card offers, detach and destroy your personal information.

If your identity is stolen, contact the Montana Office of Consumer Protection, (406) 444-4500 or (800) 481-6896.

They will provide you with steps on how to recover from identity theft.

The Federal Trade Commission also has a website in which you can report identity theft and get a recovery plan: The site asks you to tell what happened with a list of questions. FTC uses that information to create a personal recovery plan. Once you create an account the site walks you through each recovery step, updates your plan as needed, tracks your progress and has pre-fill forms and letter for you to use.


FAMILY RECORDS (Keep a copy of an inventory of important family records also in your home file.)
Baptismal and confirmation records Acceptable evidence of birth date when obtaining a delayed birth certificate; proof of church membership Indefinitely
Copyrights and patents Proof of ownership rights Indefinitely
List of policy numbers, name of each insured, beneficiary, company, agent Reference for kinds and amounts of coverage; provides record of payments and premiums and location of policy; provides record of claims Until collected or expires; until all claims settled; duplicate copies of policies can be obtained from your insurance company
Passport Identification required for international travel, even to Canada Retain expired passport to satisfy application requirements for a new one, then discard/destroy
Wills (copy) Reference; essential for settlement of estate Keep original indefinitely in safe deposit box or with attorney or Clerk of the District Court
Immunization records Review to prevent unnecessary duplication of shots Update as necessary


Abstract for real estate To prove clear title Until property is sold
Vehicle title and bill of sale Proof of ownership Until vehicle is sold
Burial lot deed – note number of plots Proof of ownership Indefinitely
Deeds and mortgages; title policy; property insurance policy; mortgage; receipts for payments on mortgage. Record day, month, and year you acquire or sell property;gross sale price; depreciation; legal fees and expense of sale For income tax and estate tax purposes; keep records of improvements to compute capital gains or losses Until property is sold to prove your home's adjusted basis
Household inventory: Appraisals, photos/videos of valuables Insurance claims Update annually. Dispose of when property is no longer owned
Property easements Proof of use rights Until property is sold
Contracts, notes, debts: promissory notes, mortgages, liens, installment contracts Evidence of collectible or payable debts; status for estate settlement Until estate is settled
Household inventory: including clothing with warranties: Description of article, date purchased, and purchase price For insurance settlement Keep up-to-date as you dispose of or add new items
Investment certificates: Stocks, bonds, mutual funds, CDs, real estate Proof of purchase After redemption amount received and taxes are settled on gain or loss
Birth certificate (certified copy or original) Proof of birth Indefinitely
Death certificates Proof of death for Social Security benefits and estate settlement Until benefits are secured and estate settled; note cause of death for family health history
Marriage records/settlement order For proof of marriage to collect insurance, Social Security or retirement benefits/divorce settlement, and veteran’s federal benefit pension compensations; to settle estate Until all claims are settled, benefits are received, and estate is settled


LEGAL RECORDS (continued)
Divorce decree To clear legal requirements for remarriage Indefinitely
Adoption papers To prove ages to start to school; for obtaining birth certificates for some jobs; to obtain driver’s license; for marriage license; for registering to vote; to qualify for Social Security benefits; to obtain passports; to determine estate heirs Indefinitely
Military service record; summary of benefits To qualify for retirement, insurance, medical, education, burial and other benefits Indefinitely

Citizenship and naturalization papers
To obtain certain types of jobs; to obtain passport; prove eligibility to vote Indefinitely


Records to keep at home

Education records/diplomas Proof of attendance and degrees Indefinitely
Employment records To determine retirement benefits or if there is a worker’s compensation claim Keep last official announcement earned benefits; keep record until all worker’s compensation claims are settled; keep beyond retirement in case you decide to re-enter the workforce
Insurance policies: Automobile; personal liability; homeowner’s or renters; life; health; disability Reference for details of coverage Until property is sold or policy expires and until all claims are settled. Review annually.
Licenses to practice (copy) To verify credentials Usually displayed; replace with most recent verification; keep copy in a safe place
Family advisers: Names, addresses, telephone numbers, and email addresses Ready reference when need (medical, legal, etc.) arises Update when changes are made
Medical history: Immunizations, operations, illness, medications, etc. Reference Indefinitely on all family members; update often
Burial plan documents Reference Indefinitely; update as needed
Record of Important Papers Reference Indefinitely; update as needed
Subscriptions; buying clubs: Titles with order & renewal dates; membership details Reference Until subscription expires; handle complaints or cancellations
FAMILY RECORDS (continued)    
Organizational memberships Reference Until membership is dropped
Keys (labeled) to safe-deposit box, car, house, home safe; safe combination Access as needed Until property is sold or safe- deposit box is relinquished
Vehicle: Certificate of title and bills of sale Essential for transfer to new owner when vehicle is sold Until car is sold or disposed of
Guarantees and warranties For proof of date of purchase; to determine service and parts guaranteed Until no longer valid
Easements, mineral & surface leases Proof of Payment Indefinitely
Household inventories: Record item, cost and date of purchase or sale; take digital photographs of rooms and items Proof of payment for insurance claims to establish values; net worth statements. Pictures of items are helpful when making claims. Indefinitely keep list up-to-date as you dispose of or add household items; make a copy also for safe- deposit box
Owner manuals for appliances and other equipment For reference on use and care/repair, warranties, guarantees Until sold or discarded
Pets: Pedigree; health and license records Identification Until pet dies or someone else becomes owner
Account books: Goals, spending plan, record of income and expenses, savings For reference and comparison; used to determine net worth and make changes in income and spending patterns Personal choice. Shows saving accumulation over multiple years
Checking accounts: Number, location, and canceled checks or photocopy pages of checks; electronic transfer card (EFT) List all account numbers with addresses, phone numbers; save payment records needed for income tax deductions and proof of important payments Minimum of at least six years
Credit and debit card information: Names, addresses and phone numbers of issuing companies; card numbers; photo copy front and back of all cards. Purchase of items on credit; use of card and payment of balances due can give you a good credit rating If card is not in current use, cancel by writing to company; if lost or stolen, notify company immediately by phone
Housing records: Improvement receipts, lease/rental agreement copies, utility deposit receipts, mortgage payments, property tax records Compute capital gains/losses; income tax basis in residential replacements Keep records until property is sold, which is typically three years after the due date for filing your return for the tax year in which
Receipts and receipted bills Proof of payment. For charge accounts – if they are tax deductible; proof of value on insurance claims. Keep credit card receipts until bill is paid; keep larger item receipts while items are in your possession
FINANCIAL RECORDS (continued)    
Safe-deposit box inventory Information for family members Revise list annually
Financial institution monthly statements Reference for completed transactions: Deposits and withdrawals Keep account locations and numbers in safe-deposit box; minimum of a year
Income tax returns: Federal and state (if applicable) returns with substantiating records Verification of taxes paid Three years minimum for possible IRS audit; six years if 25% of gross income omitted; unlimited if you file a fraudulent return.
Investments: Copies of mutual funds, stocks, bonds, real estate, etc. Statement of earnings and transactions as reference information Keep initial and current investment quarterly statements
Retirement records: Employee pensions, annuities, Keoghs and IRAs For reference; proof of employer- employee contributions, payments and benefits received or payable Until fund is exhausted
Living will (original with additional copies made) For reference specifying your end-of-life care; instructions to your doctor and other health care providers (i.e., hospital, nursing facility, hospice, or home health agency; instructions for close family members) Keep a list of where copies are distributed to be able to provide most recent copy if changes are made; store in Montana End-of-Life Registry,
Will and/or trust (copies). Separate listing of tangible personal property; letter of last instruction Unsigned copy for home reference Update copy if will or trust is changed
Durable Power of Attorney: Specify the extent of power delegated to one or more persons: and for financial decisions Gives others the power to make business decisions when you are no longer able to make decisions on your own Replace with latest version if changes are made
Durable Power of Attorney for health care Gives others the power to make health care decisions when you are no longer able to make decisions on your own Keep until updated
Personal Representative and guardian and conservator appointments For official notification of agent to settle estate and provide care of children and their finances under legal age Until official duties are completed
Social Security card Needed to apply for benefits; identification number needed on many types of applications and record Indefinitely, do not carry in your wallet/purse because your identity could be stolen with your wallet/ purse


Papers to carry with you

Make a list of these for your home file.

Credit and/or electronic banking cards To pay for or charge purchases; to make other transactions
Driver's license Identification and evidence of legal eligibility to drive
Auto insurance card To identify issuer in case of accident
Donor card To donate body organs and to donate body to medical school or training program for use in medical education or research
Medical information: Blood type, allergies, diseases (such as diabetes, heart disease, epilepsy) Emergency treatment. Place note in household files for ready reference in case of loss
Health insurance card (Medicare and/or other) Identification to use at Doctor’s Office and/or during hospital admittance
Personal identification: Name, address, and phone number for yourself and friend or relative contact Identification, especially in case of emergency
Doctor preferred Notification in case of emergency



Grab-n-Go Emergency Bucket, Box, or Backpack

Because an emergency can arise quickly and there is not enough time before one is ordered to evacuate, a family can put together a “Grab-n-Go” Emergency Bucket or Tote/Backpack. This emergency pack can contain copies of important papers to quickly take without thinking: Credit and banking information, driver’s license, birth certificates, insurance information including auto, health, medical, and home, any important medical information such as medication and immunization records, household inventory list of usernames and passwords for accounts accessed on the Web, extra set of keys to auto, home, safety deposit box or safe, and enough cash to purchase fuel for vehicle, food, and lodging for several days.

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