Christopher, a credit union member now living in Virginia, learned firsthand the value of being prepared for a quick retreat. He and his parents had to flee their home in St. Bernard Parish, an area east of New Orleans, when Hurricane Katrina swept in.
Before leaving, the family scrambled to gather important documents, including birth certificates, Social Security cards, military records, and insurance policies. Thanks to the paperwork they took with them, Christopher's parents were able to quickly and easily register for benefits from organizations such as Fema (Federal Emergency Management Agency). They also were able to contact their insurance company to take advantage of coverage that provided for mortgage payments while they were homeless.
Christopher and his parents were one of relatively few families who gathered their paperwork in time. As their experience shows, recovery from a disaster can be easier if you're prepared for the worst. If you don't think disaster preparedness is something you need to be concerned about because you don't live in earthquake, tornado, hurricane, flood, or wildfire country, consider that the American Red Cross responds to more than 70,000 disasters each year, most of which are home fires affecting just one or a few families.
So exactly what should you protect, and how?
Know what to protectThe list of documents and records you'll want to have available after you've evacuated your home is long. You'll need access to some of these items sooner than others, but all are important enough to include in your "must have" list:
- Proof of identification: driver's licenses, birth certificates, adoption papers, Social Security cards, passports, citizenship papers (such as a "green card" or naturalization documents)
- Proof of marital status: marriage license, divorce decrees, child custody papers
- Proof of military service status: current military ID, military discharge (DD Form 214)
- Insurance policies: homeowners, renters, flood, earthquake, auto, life, health, disability, long-term care; have at least the policy number and insurance company contact information for each type of coverage
- Property records: real estate deeds of trust and
mortgage documents (at least the two-page settlement statement provided
by the title company showing the actual cost of the house and purchase
expenses); rental agreement or lease; auto/boat/RV registration and
titles; video, photos or a list of household inventory; receipts for
major purchases; payment records for major home improvements; appraisals
of jewelry, collectibles, artwork, and other valuables
Recovery from a disaster can be easier if you're prepared for the worst.
- Medical information: immunization and other medical records, prescription information (drug name and dosage), health insurance ID cards, physician names and phone numbers, powers-of-attorney for health care, and living wills
- Estate planning documents: wills, trust documents, funeral instructions, power-of-attorney documents, attorney name and phone number
- Financial records: first two pages of your previous year's federal and state tax returns; stock and bond certificates, investment records, brokerage and retirement account information; credit card, checking and savings account numbers; contact information for credit unions, banks, financial institutions, credit card companies and advisers (if there are problems with mail delivery, you'll want to notify creditors)
- Pet information: medical and vaccination records; current photos and ID chip numbers in case you're separated
- Business records: recent business tax returns, including sales tax and payroll returns; a recent backup of your accounting software (such as QuickBooks)
- Other: personal address book; a letter with instructions for family or friends (for use in a situation where you're not present); backups of important computer files; a list of usernames and passwords for online accounts; a key to your safe deposit box; a recent photograph, fingerprints and dental records for each member of the household (some police stations and nonprofits fingerprint children free); account and contact information for utilities and other services (you may have to provide a new billing address or cancel certain services); a list of important documents and where originals and copies are located.
"Identification is the single most important type of documentation to protect and take with you," says Brent Neiser, a Certified Financial Planner™ and director of Collaborative Programs for the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE), a nonprofit based in Greenwood Village, Colo. "If you don't have ID, you'll have to start at square one. And proper ID can help you successfully replicate other types of records."
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