Some documents are more than a piece of paper.
Your birth certificate, the deed to your home, the title for your car, your social security card, your last will and testament, or an advanced directive are among the papers that carry so much proverbial weight.
Proper, digital document storage for your own long-term use and to potentially share with your loved ones or legal team is absolutely essential.
These papers are necessary for you to be able to purchase major assets like homes or cars, to access your financial records like bank accounts or investment portfolios, to obtain social security benefits, or simply to check into a doctor’s office for an annual visit.
Losing important paper documents can cause financial and legal issues and stress — not only for you, but also for your loved ones. They may miss a bill or have problems closing your estate once you pass. They may need to pick up medications for you and not have the appropriate paperwork on hand. You could need access to your marriage license in order to transfer social security payments upon your spouse’s passing. And your final wishes, listed in a misplaced last will and testament, may not be executed as you hoped.
By storing paper documents in a secure, digital storage facility, you can streamline your administrative tasks and allow for smoother transitions for yourself and your family members as you age.
We gathered tips and best practices for storing paper documents effectively.
Understanding the Risks of Poor Document Storage
Poor document storage isn’t simply limited to misplacing a piece of paper. You’ll want to store phyiscal documents in an appropriate place where they won’t get damaged.
Damage from poor storage can occur because of the following:
- Natural disasters, such as floods
- Accidents or unforeseen events, such as a house fire
As a result, even if you find an item when you need it, you may face issues from damage. For example, a signature may have all but disappeared from a document. Or, the paper may have been torn in a way that the seal is no longer attached to it.
Now what? Unfortunately, it presents several challenges, such as:
- Challenges purchasing or selling real estate
- Financial issues like missed bills or challenges obtaining records
- Legal issues
- Loss of important information or legal documents
- Stress and anxiety — for you and your loved ones
Best Practices for Storing Paper Documents
Even in the digital age, paper documents are still essential. Sometimes, “wet signatures” on original documents are still required for legal documents, such as wills and a power of attorney.
Outside of scanning and storing your documents digitally, you’ll want to protect your documents the best you can. Here are a few suggestions.
- Choose the right location. It should be cool, dry, and secure.
- Use appropriate storage containers. Acid-free boxes or folders reduce the risk of deterioration.
- Label and organize documents. Make retrieving your papers simple for you and your family by keeping them organized. For example, labeled and alphabetized folders and boxes can make it easy for someone to find a document when they need it.
- Regularly check for signs of damage or deterioration. You may need to re-think storage if you notice any damage.
- Store paper flat. Instead of rolling or folding paper documents, lay them flat in a box or folder.
- Make digital backups of important documents. Though originals are preferred, having a digital backup can be useful for many reasons. A tool like WayWiser’s Family Vault makes it simple to store, organize, and share documents that other members of your family may need at a moment’s notice.
Storing Specific Types of Paper Documents
Believe it or not, document storage is not a one-size-fits-all. Here’s practical advice for storing different types of paper documents.
It’s convenient to have wills, contracts, and other legal documents in your home. However, this opens you up to risks in the event of natural disasters and even burglaries. Your attorney or the town clerk may be willing to keep the originals. Alternatively, consider a safe deposit box at a bank.
“Personal” may sound casual, but personal documents are of utmost importance. These documents can include your birth certificate, social security card, a marriage license, your ID, or even a diploma. Again, a safe deposit box off-site would be the safest solution. But you may need to access these documents more often than a will, so it may not be convenient to store them at a bank. A fire-proof deposit box in your home can keep it safe and be sure to put a plastic slip over each document to keep it preserved.
Again, these items are ideal for digital storage as well. Something like an ID card can simply be photographed (front and back) with the camera on your phone and uploaded to a secure document storage system like WayWiser’s.
Photographs and Artwork
Artwork can be valuable, and photos of loved ones from years past are priceless. Acid-free boxes can prevent deterioration. If you plan to pass down family photos, label the back with a No. 2 pencil — it’s less likely to fade than a pen.
Though there’s something special about printed photographs, consider backing them up digitally and labeling them. Future generations will appreciate your archiving abilities should something happen to the originals.
Newspapers or Magazines
Perhaps you were in a newspaper (or your child was). Or, maybe you saved the paper from the day your child was born. Whatever your reason for keeping newspapers or magazines, you’ll want to store them correctly. Put them flat inside a box or folder. Thin sheets of alkaline buffered tissue may also aid in preservation.
Storing Paper Documents in the Digital Age
It’s the digital age — can’t I just put it in the cloud somewhere? Absolutely, but it isn’t quite as easy as that. You’ll want to do your research before you decide to upload some of your most important documents to an online storage system.
A few things to consider:
- Is the system easy to use? How does it allow you to organize your documents?
- Is the system secure?
- Does the system allow me to share my documents with other family members when needed?
- Does it integrate with any other tools that might come in handy?
A system like WayWiser’s Family Vault is ideal for the family scenario. It’s an easy to use platform, built with the whole family in mind. It allows you to create folders for your documents. It allows you to share documents with other members of the family based on the categories of Daily Living, Financial, and Medical, plus it provides a private folder for items you don’t choose to share. And finally, they use some of the same security methods as the CIA!
There are numerous benefits to storing documents digitally, but there are a few things to you’ll want to keep in mind as well—primarily, don’t just throw things away once it is scanned to a cloud drive!
Some benefits include the following:
- Having a backup
- The document will remain safe regardless of accidents, natural disasters, or deterioration
- Easily accessible from a computer or mobile device
- Less stress for you or your family members if the documents are accessible and labeled correctly
The only drawbacks, and reasons not to throw out originals are:
- Sometimes, the original, with a “wet signature” or raised seal, is required
- Technology can be challenging for some people
If you’re going digital, some best practices include:
- Set up a storage account with a cloud-based system you can trust
- Scan your documents
- If you don’t have a scanner, sometimes you can photograph them with your phone, email it to yourself, and place it into digital storage as an image rather than a .pdf
- Decide on a naming system. For example, 1955_birth_certificate_Smith_John, 2006_photograph_Smith_Jane. Then, create folders for items and label them things like “photographs,” “legal,” “billing,” and “personal.” This step helps yous stay organized.
It may be the digital age, but paper documents are still important. Original copies of documents such as wills and birth certificates may be necessary to execute your final wishes or obtain access to benefits. Still, backups on a secure, cloud-based system can give you and your loved ones peace of mind, reducing stress during difficult times in the process.
What are your experiences with storing paper documents long-term? Do you have any tips for your fellow readers?