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The most important thing to be aware of when considering what documents to save in case of a natural disaster is this: no document is worth your life. If danger is imminent, get out of the house—don’t worry about finding copies of your will or birth certificate first. Most legal documents, such as social security cards, birth certificates, divorce records, house deeds, and wills can be reproduced. For some, it’s more difficult—but it can be done.
However, if you have the time to save a few items and documents, saving these will make your life easier after the dust settles.
If you lose all your other documentation, you may have a hard time getting your life back in order if you can’t prove your own identity. Driver’s licenses can be reproduced—the process is easier in some states than others. And so can passports, but you’ll need other forms of ID such as a birth certificate in most cases. So if you have the chance, try to be sure your driver’s license or passport makes it out of the house.
No piece of paper or photo album is worth risking your life to retrieve.
When you talk to most people who’ve been through a natural disaster, they most regret losing family pictures and memorabilia—not legal documents. You can protect your photos these days by backing them up on disc and mailing them to someone you trust, or uploading them online to a site like Flickr or Facebook. Keep all your photo albums together in an easy-to-find place, near to your important documents—so if you have to, you can grab them quickly.
A video inventory
You can reproduce most legal documents—but if you don’t document the contents of your house, you could have trouble making an insurance claim later. Take a tour of your home with a video recorder. Walk through the house, record all your belongings and add details you remember about how much each item cost and when you bought it. It’s a good idea to do this once a year to ensure the video is accurate.
Receipts and appraisals for valuables
These are crucial in proving your claim for insurance payouts—and it can be difficult or impossible to reproduce them. If you have jewelry or other belongings that are valuable enough to have their own insurance policy, keep all your appraisals and receipts for them in one easy-to-retrieve place.
Home improvement documentation
If you had major work done on your house, you’ll need to save the documentation for that—it can reduce the amount of income taxes you owe when you sell the house. These documents can also be difficult to reproduce, so save them in a safe place where they can be retrieved easily in case of a natural disaster.
Residency status documents
If you aren’t a natural US citizen, losing your residency documentation can cause major hassles for you later on. If you have to save one thing from a burning or flooding house, save the documents that prove your legal status in the country. These documents establish your right to property ownership, family status, and identity.
Legal guardianship or power-of-attorney papers
During a natural disaster, someone you have legal guardianship over may have a medical emergency—and you may need to prove your power of attorney status. You may need to provide assistance to a family member during the crisis. If you lose the proper documentation, you could lose the power of attorney.
No piece of paper or photo album is worth risking your life to retrieve. But if you can, save the most important ones—the ones that can’t be reproduced later, or can’t be reproduced without other important documentation. Save all these items in one place that’s easily accessible—preferably in a single box or bag, so all you have to do is grab it and go. If you do, you’ll have an easier time putting the pieces back together once the crisis is over.