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How to store your most important documents

Your will. Your life insurance policy. Your birth certificate. Your third-grade report card. These are the kinds of things you’ll want your kids or other beneficiaries to have access to someday (or that you might need to grab in a pinch), and the kinds of things that would be devastating to lose in a disaster like a flood or a fire. But how do you store them securely, and how do you make sure they’re accessible in the event of an emergency? And with more of our lives moving online, how do you make sure your digital files are secure, too?

Good questions. All of them. And it just so happens that we have produced the answers below. In short, you’ll almost certainly deploy some combination of three key places/approaches, both for redundancy and because different types of info require different types of security. (Spoiler alert: That junk drawer in your kitchen will not appear in this article.) Here, then, is your complete guide to storing important info for your family.

Fireproof safe

Start here. Fireproof safes are affordable, come in a range of sizes, and no, it’s not just a clever name: They’ll protect your important documents in case of fire. (More on that later.)

Once your documents are nestled inside, they’ll be easily accessible for you (and your loved ones, should something happen to you). This makes them ideal for documents you want to regularly update or might need off-hours access to, including: passports; your will (original, if it’s not kept with an attorney); emergency medical instructions; power of attorney; funeral/burial instructions. This is a good spot for copies of original documents stored offsite (including physical, digital files stored on a USB stick, CD or DVD). Photographs. Valuable objects you sometimes use or want to insure (e.g., jewelry). Cash. (Regarding those last two: Safety deposit boxes (explained below) are not covered by the FDIC, so if your jewelry is insured, you’ll want to store it at home.)

That said, there are several reasons why a fireproof safe should not be your only home for essential files. There’s a theft risk, however remote. And assuming you keep it in your home, you and your important files could both be harmed in the same disaster (for example, a devastating flood, tornado or hurricane). And then, depending on the size and structure of the safe itself, it might make it hard to organize your files. It’s also an all or nothing thing—if you only want certain relatives to have access to certain files (or if you want to grant access to someone who doesn’t live nearby), a safe isn’t ideal.

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