Preparing Your Information for Disaster

Office: binders.  Photo by sidewalk flying.My grandmother passed away a month ago and, frankly, I’m still reeling from it in some ways. She was a daily part of my life for my entire childhood, a regular phone companion, and a person I visited (at least) monthly, even though she lived four hours away.

My mother took the loss even worse, especially since she was the one charged with taking care of my grandmother’s affairs in the days after her passing. Unfortunately, we came to find out that my grandmother’s papers and information were incredibly poorly organized, with my mother finally resorting to digging through boxes of old papers and calling numbers just to put the pieces together.

With such organization, it was really clear that my grandmother’s financial organization relied entirely on her ongoing health and sharp state of mind. If she had fallen into poor health, either physical or mental, it would have been impossible for someone to step in and take care of her affairs. In her passing, she left a lot of confusing papers in her wake, adding up to a lot of painful hours for the people left behind, sifting through all of this information to take care of such things.

After this experience, I realized that I never want my family – my wife, my children, my parents, or anyone else – to wind up in this situation. I resolved to go far beyond my old master information document and create a resource that my family could turn to in any painful situation – my loss of life, my loss of good mental or physical health, and the potential loss of our property in a disaster.

I’ve been collecting all of this information in a binder of my own design. I took a serious look at several prepackaged solutions for this type of situation – Life.doc, Know Where You Are, and several others – but all of them failed in some respect. They left out something I considered important. They weren’t customizable enough. I couldn’t just print off more forms. So, I decided to assemble my own.

What follows is a detailed description of the document I’m still assembling with enough detail that you could easily make your own. My advice? Copy and paste all of the text below into a Microsoft Word document, then start filling in the blanks. I would turn each section into a big header – perhaps on its own page – so that it’s easy to find, and I’d use separators to keep the sections apart.

If you have the same kind of worries that I do, assembling this binder will take a big load off of your mind.

Ready to dive in? Let’s get started.

What You Need
To assemble this, you’ll need several items.

A three-ring binder Since you’ll be moving pages around, a three ring binder is the best way to go. Although you may save this documentation electronically, you’ll want to have a hard copy sitting in a safe place (like in a deposit box at a bank) so that you can turn to it in times of need.

A computer with a printer This is optional, but highly worthwhile. Recording all this information in an electronic fashion makes it much easier to make updates later.

A three-hole puncher This makes it easy to punch holes in the pages so that they’ll easily fit in the binder.

Dividers You’ll want 15 to 20 section dividers for the binder to make it easy to flip to the place you want.

A camera, preferably a digital one You’ll likely need to take pictures of many of your items. A digital camera makes this quite easy, though a film-based one fills the need, too.

A writing utensil and some notebook paper As you prepare this document, you’re going to take a lot of notes along the way. Be prepared.

Plenty of time This will take quite a long time to assemble. Don’t expect to do it all in an hour or even in an afternoon.

A Basic Emergency Plan
Every family should have an emergency plan. Where will you meet in times of disaster? What key people do you need to call? What key items should be extracted from the home? Where are the shut-off valves in your home? It’s worth your effort to start this process by developing a simple emergency plan and keeping a copy of it in your home as well as in this binder. Here’s what you should include.

Immediate emergency plan Identify two locations where you will meet in the event of an emergency. One place should be about 500 feet from your home. The other place should be a location outside your town that all family members can easily locate – say, the home of a grandparent. That way, all of you know where to go if there’s a disaster at your home – or a disaster in your area.

Emergency item list You have five minutes. What do you grab out of your home? Spend some time thinking about this and make a list of five or so items that you (or family members) could quickly grab in the event of a disaster. Old photos, a backup hard drive, and a portable safe might be good things to list.

Household shut-down information What do you need to do to effectively “shut down” your home? Know where the turn-off is for the gas and the water and note them here, as well as fire extinguisher locations. If you keep emergency food or water stored somewhere in your home, note that here, too. If you have a burglar alarm in your home, make a note of this, too, as well as any plans you have related to that (such as calling an alarm phone).

Three (or more) emergency contacts Who should be contacted in the event of an emergency? You should have their contact information at the ready, particularly every possible phone number for them. Good people to consider for this role include your parents, your siblings, your lifelong friends, and your pastor/clergy.

Who possesses keys for your home? Keep a list of the people who have keys to your home/automobiles, as well as their contact information. If you keep a key hidden outside, I would not note this in the document.

Key contacts You should keep a list of key contacts – work, school, and organizations where you (or your spouse) hold leadership positions are good to note here. You should also include contact information for your primary care physicians.

Key Information About Each Family Member
You should maintain some basic information for each person who is dependent on you – you, your spouse, your children, and any other people who you’re responsible for (such as disabled or elderly relatives). What information is worthwhile for each person?

Key personal information Full legal name and birth date should be recorded as a minimum. Social Security number is optional – it could be very useful, but it’s also something of a security risk. Perhaps just write it on the copy stored in the safe at the bank.

Home, work, and school addresses, phone numbers, and emails In other words, the most complete contact information you can assemble for each person.

Key work contacts Such information as your work identification number(s), your department at work, and any other key data from your job should go here. You should also note the name and contact information for your work supervisor, any key assistants or subordinates that you have, a human resource contact, and a pension/401(k)/403(b) contact. If the person is a student, contact information for the school and any school identification numbers are key.

Health insurance information Make absolutely sure you have health insurance information for each person – the policy number, the provider, and contact information for the provider.

Medication list What medications is the person actively taking? What dosages? What pharmacies? What doctor(s) prescribed the medication?

Diseases or other health concerns A simple list of the diseases and other major medical conditions of the person is useful, as is an allergy list. Blood type can also be useful, as can whether or not the person is an organ donor.

Complete physician and pharmacy list with contacts Every doctor that a person sees on any regular basis should be noted (name, specialty, contact information).

Other medical history A medical history can also be useful in a medical emergency, such as surgeries and past conditions.

Copy of will, living will, power of attorney, trust documentation A copy of all of these documents is useful. These can be photocopies, as long as the location of certified versions is identified.

Details on All Insurance Policies
For each policy that you have of any kind, make a list of the insurance type, the insurance company (and contact info), the policy number, the agent’s name, and the agent’s phone number. A copy of the policies can also be useful, but at the very least, you should jot down a quick summary of each policy under the contact information.

Types of insurance to remember: homeowners’ insurance, automobile insurance, renters’ insurance, other property insurance, life insurance, health insurance, dental insurance, disability insurance, long term care insurance, liability insurance, pet insurance, and mortgage insurance. There may be others.

Details on All Accounts
A complete listing of all of your accounts is essential.

Banks You should maintain a list of all banks where you or anyone in your family holds an account. You may want to note account holders as well. Account information is optional here – I would perhaps write it in by hand on the copy in the safe, but not keep it electronically.

Investment accounts The same information should apply to all investment accounts, retirement or otherwise. This includes pensions and any other potential sources of income.

Key property title locations The location of the titles of all homes and automobiles you or your spouse own is useful.

Legal partnerships A list of all legal partnerships that the person is involved with is vital, along with a contact person for each one.

Key financial personnel Contact information for your accountant, your stock broker, and/or your financial planner(s) is key here.

Mortgage and other debts A full list of every organization with which you hold a debt is also useful.

Credit cards Keep a list of every bank with which you have a credit card, as well as the phone number for that card. Don’t include the account numbers – they’re not necessary and are a bit of a security risk.

Real estate holdings A full list of your real estate holdings is very useful, along with the location of any and all deeds.

Legal representation You should also have contact information for your lawyer.

Location of other legal documents Depending on your situation, you may need to note other legal documents of importance. You may want to note the location of any birth certificates, adoption papers, custody agreements, divorce agreements, military papers, lease documentation, passports, real estate deeds, pre-nupital agreements, marriage licenses, wills, trusts, living wills, contracts, powers of attorney documents, and any other contracts that may be relevant.

You can include copies of any of these as you see fit, but you should keep all of the original documents gathered somewhere (preferably in a safe in a bank).

Service Providers
This piece is simple. Every business or individual that provides a service to you should have their contact information listed in a central place (so that they can quickly be contacted to postpone or eliminate services).

Services to remember: your child’s caregiver, your housekeeper, your baby sitter, your pet sitter, your gardener, your pool maintenance company, your gas company, your telephone company, your cell phone provider, your electric company, your cable provider, your garbageman, your lawn service, your pest control service, your computer repairman, your building superintendent or landlord, your alarm services, your cleaning services, and any other services you might have.

A Thorough Inventory of Your Possessions
This will perhaps be the most time consuming part of all. For insurance purposes, it’s incredibly useful to have a thorough inventory of all of the possessions in your home (and elsewhere). Here’s the exact procedure I would follow.

First, make a list of every room in your house, all external buildings, and any other key locations where there’s a significant amount of your property. This is essentially a location checklist, to make sure every place where you have property is accounted for. Don’t forget the attic or the basement or the shed in the back!

Next, go to each of these rooms/locations and make a careful list of all of the items with significant value in the room. Don’t worry about specifics – just make sure you’ve actually noted all of the valuable items in the room. It’s more important to hit all the big things than to get bogged down in items worth just a dollar or two that prevent you from ever getting this done, so I propose a rule of thumb: only note things with a value of $20 or more. If you want to note more items, come back later and do this again, but don’t write down the items on the first time through if the value is that low.

Don’t forget drawers, jewelry boxes, under beds, in closets, or other such locations that are easy to overlook. Take your time with this process.

Once you have this big list of possessions, document it as much as possible. Write down any serial numbers you can identify. Take photos of as many items as possible (including large collections, like books, DVDs, and so on). If you have a digital camera, this isn’t a problem – thoroughly document your items. Make estimates as to the value of the items. For larger items (anything worth more than, say, $100), note the date and place of purchase, the purchase price, and keep a copy of the receipt (you can scan the receipt and save it in the document if you wnat).

This will take a long time. Don’t sweat it. Take your time and do it right.

Updating Your Document
I recommend several avenues for maintaining and updating the document.

First, keep both an electronic and a hard copy of the document in a safe place. I recommend keeping them in a safe deposit box at your bank. Keep the electronic copy on a CD or on a memory stick.

Second, update your local copy of the document electronically every time you notice a change. You can print off updates for each change if you like, but don’t sweat it too much.

Every six months or so, review the document carefully for changes. Add new possessions and remove ones that have been sold or given away. Then, print out any updated pages and replace them in the binder that’s in your safe deposit box, as well as replacing the electronic copy.

You’ll Be Glad You Did It
Even aside from the peace of mind that will come from having this document, there will come some point in your life where having all of this information at hand will come in handy – your house burns down, or your spouse passes away suddenly. During those times of crisis, having all of this data available easily to you will make all the difference in the world, taking a healthy dose of stress away from that painful and challenging moment.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.