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What should you keep? And where? And for how long?

Who should have access to what? When?

How do you gather and organize important documents? Just the thought of gathering documents, let alone organizing them, can be overwhelming – like having to prepare an income tax return. But, just as with your income tax return, you can get rid of clutter by saving many documents electronically. You will, however, probably want to keep a hard copy in your safe or safety deposit box as a backup in case of bitrot.

What documents do you keep track of and organize? How do you keep the important documents?

You can keep an electronic copy of your medical care documents such as your Medical Power of Attorney together with your current symptoms and allergies, medical history and contact information for physicians, pharmacy, family and friends and insurance policies and claim forms on a usb embedded in a wallet card. You will always have it with you. Hard copy of your Medical Power of Attorney can be given to your physicians and everyone named in these documents. Be sure to also use the new “Medicare HIPAA” to inform the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services who may see your records.

Personal documents such as birth, adoption and baptismal certificates, marriage and divorce and death certificates and your passport, DD-214 and Social Security card should be kept in a secure place. Make sure that the agent named in your Medical Power of Attorney has a copy of your DD-214 and Social Security card so that they can apply for VA benefits and Medicaid for you. If you have hospital indemnity, long-term care or catastrophic illness insurance, they should have a copy of that policy and claims for as well. That person will also need access to bank and brokerage, pension and retirement account records.

If your Durable [Financial] Power of Attorney is to affect real property, it should be recorded in the county deed records. Your agent and successor agents should also have a copy as should anyone to whom you want your agent to report, such as your tax preparer.

Academic and employment records should be kept if there is any possibility of your working again.

Keep records regarding your vehicle until you sell it.

Keep tax records for seven years.

Keep life insurance policies for three years after the death of the insured.

The executor you name in your Will should have a copy of marriage and divorce certificates and of the death certificates of family members who pass after you sign your Will and, of course, a copy of your Will just in case the safe place in which you store is so safe that no one can find it. In Texas, a copy of your Will can be submitted for probate with the live testimony of the two witnesses or, if they cannot be found, of two people familiar with your signature. To keep your Will both safe and findable, deposit it with the local probate court clerks.

If you have a trust, make sure that your successor trustee(s) has a copy of the trust document. Over the years, these tend to go missing, to everyone’s consternation and dismay.


Elder law attorney, Terry Garrett, is a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is an Approved Guardianship Attorney. She assists people in elder law, estate and special needs planning, guardianship and settling estates. She graduated with honors from Cornell University. She was on the Dean’s List at Wharton Business School. She earned her J.D. at Columbia Law School, receiving the Parker Award and a Mellon Fellowship.

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