As we've sadly witnessed from recent events, disasters--be it hurricanes, earthquakes or wildfires--are an inevitable fact of life. And just as you might create a disaster plan to protect your house and your personal belongings, you should consider protecting your personal and financial information as well.
Think of securing your personal information in the same way you think of boarding up the windows of your home. To protect your personal life "inventory," you should back up, document and record all your personal and financial information. Additionally, if you haven't done so already, you need to create tangible records (photos, videos or otherwise) of your personal belongings for insurance claim substantiation purposes.
You should store these records outside your home, preferably in a safe deposit box or fireproof safe. Additionally, you should consider scanning these records and saving them electronically, either on a CD or DVD or through an online backup service.
It's also a good idea to give a trusted friend or relative, as well as your financial planner, a copy of these records with instructions on what to do if something were to happen. Keep in mind that if these folks are close to you geographically, should a disaster strike, it may hit them, too. So you may want to consider giving one copy to someone who is in a different geographic region.
Your personal inventory should include copies of the following critical documents:
- birth, death and marriage certificates
- Social Security cards
- credit card numbers
- medical records
- identification, including your driver's license
- recent bank and brokerage account statements, house deeds, mortgage and home equity notes
- car title
- insurance policies and agent contact numbers
- credit and debit cards
- tax returns for the past three years
- the location of wills, trusts and powers of attorney
- names and contact numbers for executors, trustees and guardians
- a list of financial advisors and their contact information
- a list of user IDs and passwords for your online accounts
Your personal inventory should also include photographic records--either photos or videos--of such personal belongings as jewelry, furniture, computer and stereo equipment and anything else of value, either personally or monetarily. Along with the visual representation of these items, it's also helpful to create a document describing each of your valuables. In addition to the description, this document should include the item's cost, age, manufacturer, and model and/or serial number. Insurance companies will also want to see copies of receipts or appraisals for any expensive items, including jewelry, artwork, antiques and collectibles.
Though this task may sound daunting, all these documents are necessary in the event that you have to rebuild a financial life in the wake of a disaster.
Finally, when thinking about disaster planning, it's also a good idea to think about contingency planning, especially when it comes to your legal affairs. With that in mind, this is a perfect opportunity to review your legal documents to determine whom you've named as an agent. If you haven't already done so, consider adding a contingent agent--a backup person who makes decisions in the event that your primary agent can't--to your wills, trusts, durable powers of attorney, medical directives and so on. Once again, keep geography in mind and think of naming individuals in different parts of the country in order to cover all your bases.
Debra Neiman, CFP, is principal of Neiman & Associates Financial Services, a financial planning firm and registered investment advisor in Watertown, Massachusetts. She's also the co-author of the recently released book, Money Without Matrimony: The Unmarried Couple's Guide to Financial Security.