Organize Your Important Financial Information

  • Estate planning is about control – and controlling your important information is a first step.
  • Know what you should keep, throw away, copy, and shred.
  • Understand your options for storing your information.

Organize Your Life

Estate planning is about control – not death. Part of that control is over your information. Keeping all those bank statements, legal documents, bills, receipts, and so on organized can help your family when you can’t speak for yourself.

It’s not just about the future. Keeping all your financial and other important paperwork in one place can reduce the amount of stress in your life now.

It all starts with knowing what you have, how long to keep it, where to store it, and when to shred it.

Inventory important documents

Do you have copies or originals of all your important papers? Take some time to sit down and look over everything you have. You may take this task on at tax time when you are looking over all your information annually. Another approach is to tackle a little bit each month.

The act of gathering your important information starts you on the road to better control.

Begin by sorting into categories. The act of gathering information starts you on the road to better control. Sort papers into piles by category, and get your shredder ready to go to work.

While you are preparing your papers, begin a list of the people who help you with your finances, such as your Financial Advisor, CPA, attorney, and insurance agents. If your family needed to contact your advisors on your behalf, a list of those important people should make things much easier.

As you collect your papers and prepare your list of the people who help you with your finances, you might find some information is missing. You can now start collecting those missing pieces of information or important documents.

Get rid of what you don’t need

Some people keep everything while others keep nothing. Knowing how to stay in the middle will help you keep a useful set of the most important information.

Some original important documents should never be thrown away. Other information has to be kept only as long as the documents are current. Ask your lawyer, accountant, and Financial Advisor for their recommendations when you update documents.

You don’t need to keep warranties for appliances you no longer own. You can also throw away the papers for that boat you sold 10 years ago.

Find out much more for specific documents in our list, What to Keep, Where to Store, and When to Shred (PDF).

Evaluate storage options

An infographic that says five estate planning documents: will, durable power of attorney, health care power of attorney, living will, revocable living trust

You will need to store papers, valuable items, and computer data. The space you have available in your home might determine your options. You may have room for a locking file cabinet, but if you live in an area prone to flooding, fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, or earthquakes, you might want to consider plastic containers instead. If you had to leave quickly, file cabinet drawers could be cumbersome.

If you choose to buy a safe, remember water causes a lot of damage during fires. Make sure the safe is designed to protect from both fire and water damage. A small container that fits inside will make it easier to remove everything in a hurry if you have to.

Some people rent safe deposit boxes for important papers. Look at the terms of the contract with the bank and understand how your family could access the box in your absence.

Some experts advise you keep documents such as wills, trusts, or powers of attorney in an emergency kit at home, rather than in a safe deposit box. In many states, the bank may be required to seal the box temporarily if the renter dies, which would delay the time when survivors can retrieve these documents.

Create storage for all your records

Talk with your lawyer, accountant, and Financial Advisor about the options they suggest for your situation. You will probably use a combination of storage options.

Once you decide how to store everything and set up your filing system, schedule a time to check on them annually. Tax time is often handy, while you are evaluating your information anyway.

Prepare an emergency kit

It all starts with knowing what you have, how long to keep it, where to store it, and when to shred it.

All this organization can also come in handy if a natural disaster forces you from your home.

It’s a good idea to prepare an emergency kit containing photocopies of papers you’re likely to need to help you recover from a disaster. Records you might consider putting in that kit include:

  • Birth, death, and marriage certificates
  • Adoption papers
  • Photos or videos of possessions
  • Military records
  • Social Security cards
  • Mortgage/property deeds
  • Car titles
  • Insurance policies (life, health, disability, long-term care, auto, homeowners, renters, etc.)

Your kit might also include:

  • List of emergency contacts, including family members and your Financial Advisor
  • Important medical information, including copies of insurance cards, doctors’ names and phone numbers, prescriptions, and immunizations
  • List of credit card and debit card numbers, including “800” contact numbers
  • Book of blank checks
  • Electronic backups of critical information
  • Safe deposit box location, list of contents, and key
  • Recent pay stubs and employee benefits information
  • Retirement account records
  • Home improvement records
  • Recent tax returns

Your emergency kit should be a fireproof, waterproof, locked box you store at home in a place you can easily access. For an additional layer of security, consider sending copies of vital documents to a trusted family member or friend who lives in a community far enough away it’s unlikely it would also be hit if a large-scale disaster should strike.

If you need to replace valuable papers, FEMA has a list of resources to help you: Your Official Documents.

Next steps

  • Start organizing your important papers. Tax time is good for this, but any time will work.
  • Get rid of what you don’t need, and find a good place to store what you do.
  • Prepare an emergency kit containing photocopies of papers you’re likely to need to help you recover from a disaster.

Trust services available through banking and trust affiliates in addition to non-affiliated companies of Wells Fargo Advisors.

Wells Fargo Advisors and its affiliates do not provide tax or legal advice. Please consult with your tax and/or legal advisors before taking any action that may have tax and/or legal consequences.