Key Documents You Need to Take With You in an Emergency

As you prepare for Florence or the next big hurricane, make sure you gather financial documents that you'll need if you must evacuate or your home is damaged.

Question: In your last column, you talked about how to prepare for a hurricane, and you mentioned gathering key documents. What documents are those?

Answer: Many of them you likely already carry around with you. You will need others to handle your finances if you must evacuate or your home is damaged during the hurricane.

“As you rush out the door before a storm, some of the keys to your financial survival over the coming days may already be in your wallet, including your driver’s license, bank and credit cards, health insurance identification and some cash—ATMs and other machines may not be working,” says Neal Stern, a CPA and member of the American Institute of CPAs’ Financial Literacy Commission. “Don’t forget your contact list for family members, doctors, dentist, lawyer, insurance broker and other key resources.”

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If you have time to organize your records and put together a “go file” to take with you during a disaster, consider the following:

Identification records. These include your driver’s license, birth certificate, passport and Social Security card. The documents are essential if you must establish your identity with financial institutions because you need new credit cards or if you must make a temporary change of address, says Stern. If you must apply for a new driver’s license, you’ll usually need the original documents of your birth certificate, Social Security card or passport, rather than just copies. Also take your health insurance or Medicare cards with you.

Home inventory and insurance records. Walk through your residence with a cell phone camera to create a record of your possessions—including those in closets and drawers—as well as document the condition of your home before anything was damaged. This can be very helpful to establish your losses when you file a claim with your insurer. Keep receipts or appraisals for valuable items or major purchases. Also retain copies of your insurance policies, especially for home and auto insurance, which will include information about what is covered and how to contact the insurer to start your claim.

Recent financial statements. Put together a file with your most recent statements from your credit card companies, banks, brokerage firm, retirement accounts, car loan, student loans, mortgage company and utilities. These documents contain contact information and your account numbers. You’ll need this information if you are evacuated for a while and will need to contact the companies to have your bills sent to a new address or to arrange a new way to make payments.

Tax records. It’s a good idea to keep (and protect) your tax records for at least the past three years, which is the amount of time the IRS generally has to initiate an audit. Ideally, you should keep your tax returns indefinitely, but try to take at least the last three years’ worth of returns with you if you must leave your home quickly. See When It’s Safe to Shred Your Tax Records for more information about the tax records to keep and toss.

Legal documents. Keep a copy of your car registration with you. Also, your car title should be easily accessible, especially if your car is damaged and your insurer declares it a total loss. Make sure your property deed and mortgage papers, as well as your will, health-care proxy, power of attorney, living will and other legal documents are in a safe place.

Kimberly Lankford
Contributing Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

As the "Ask Kim" columnist for Kiplinger's Personal Finance, Lankford receives hundreds of personal finance questions from readers every month. She is the author of Rescue Your Financial Life (McGraw-Hill, 2003), The Insurance Maze: How You Can Save Money on Insurance -- and Still Get the Coverage You Need (Kaplan, 2006), Kiplinger's Ask Kim for Money Smart Solutions (Kaplan, 2007) and The Kiplinger/BBB Personal Finance Guide for Military Families. She is frequently featured as a financial expert on television and radio, including NBC's Today Show, CNN, CNBC and National Public Radio.