A crisis strikes: can you access your crucial personal data?

Secure your records for the day they're neededWhen disaster strikes, information is precious. In a recent story, Bankrate.com spells out key documents that are important to have close at hand, including bank account and credit card numbers, copies of insurance policies, prescriptions and mortgage information.

This is a good start, but if you really want to be prepared, financial planner Marty Kuritz offers a much more complete list of important documents that he urges everyone keep in a readily accessible place.

Here's his Big Eight list:
  1. Passport(s), cash, credit/ATM card(s), a pre-paid phone card
  2. Current photos of all household members and pets
  3. A printed emergency personal telephone directory
  4. Copies of your estate and health care documents, insurance policies
  5. Photocopies of important family cards like driver's licenses, medical and employment I.D.s
  6. A list of where your original important papers and documents are located, including info about any safety deposit boxes
  7. Current medical info information, blood types, allergies, medications, etc.
  8. A current room-by-room inventory of your personal and household possessions, including model, serial numbers, original purchase dates and price, etc. of anything that is particularly valuable. Photos and videotapes are an excellent addition. (This information will be very useful in settling an insurance claim.)

Kuritz would also like you to have a copy of his book, The Beneficiary Book, which walks you through a life inventory that includes not only emergency information, but also things like Mom's recipe for apple pie, whose loss would be a tragedy for the family. While it may sound a little corny, the book would have been of enormous value to my family when my stepmother died, leaving behind a husband with dementia. Sorting out their affairs was painful. "My book will keep your family from going through hell when you go to heaven," says Kurtz.

Deciding where to store this kind of information is another important decision. Maintaining this information electronically has advantages because you can access it wherever you are. Google offers free secure storage for health records. Iron Mountain, one of the oldest and best-known paper storage companies, also offers digital storage for individuals for a fairly nominal charge. (For more options click here.)

If you decide that paper is still better, find a secure storage place. It's probably not a good idea to put this information in a bank safety deposit vault because if you aren't able to go to the bank to access the vault, you won't be able to get at the information you have stored. Kuritz recommends a simple grab-and-go bag stored in an easy-to-describe spot that is accessible not only to you but also to family or a friend who you send to pick it up.
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