What important documents to keep and how to organize them

Now that income tax season is past, it’s a good opportunity to organize important personal documents, determine how they should be stored, and how long they need to be kept.

Keep: Vital documents

Vital records are documents issued by the government that prove you exist and indicate your status. These documents include birth certificates, marriage licences, divorce decrees, death certificates, adoption certificates, citizenship and immigration papers, military enrollment and discharge papers, criminal records and pardons, passports, and social security number.

Keep: Legal documents

Legal documents explain types of contractual agreements between you and someone else or grant specific rights for someone to act on your behalf. These types of documents include wills, powers of attorney, living wills, custody agreements, and spousal support agreements. They also include deeds or land titles, patents, affidavits, and articles of incorporation for a business.

It is important to keep vital records as long as you are alive. Certain legal documents can be destroyed when superseded.

Both vital records and legal documents should be stored in a safe and secure location such as a safety deposit box or a fireproof safe. You should also keep a scanned copy encrypted on a secure cloud drive in case the documents are lost, damaged, or stolen.

Keep: Financial documents

Financial documents are a formal record of your financial activities. These include your income taxes, bank account and investment statements, stocks and bonds certificates, loan contracts, utilities, and all other types of bills. This type of information should be kept secure in a filing cabinet, although you may wish to keep some documents such as stocks and bonds certificates in a safety deposit box or fireproof safe.

The required length of time to keep financial documents depends on the country in which you live (different countries have different taxation laws), the state or province within that country, the type of document, as well as your particular financial situation. For example, if you are claiming a portion of your home electric bill as part of your business, you may be required to keep your electric bills for as long as required by income tax legislation for your business. If you don’t have a home business, you may simply wish to scan a copy of it and shred it immediately or even receive the bill electronically and save it to a folder on your computer. It is very important that you verify with your accountant, tax attorney, and/or financial advisor about document retention for your specific situation.

Keep: Licences and Insurance

The licence and insurance category includes licences such as driving, flying, and boating, and all types of insurance (life, home, auto). Generally, these documents can be kept until superseded or until they expire or are cancelled.

Insurance companies often provide discounts if you can prove you have been continually insured for an extended period of time and have minimal claims. If you are changing insurance companies, perhaps because you will be moving house soon, contact your current insurance company and ask them to provide a letter showing your customer status. Insurance discounts can be offered to drivers who have clean driving records, so before you move, contact your state/province and request a driving history. Keep the insurance letters and driving history records for as long as you hold insurance and a drivers’ licence.

Keep: Health records

For most people, their family doctor keeps a record of their health information. However, you may wish to keep your own details, such as family history of chronic diseases and conditions, a list of your own vaccinations and immunizations, surgeries and procedures, and any allergies, adverse drug reactions, as well as a copy of your dental records. If you travel often, you may wish to store this information securely on your smartphone or in the cloud so you have access to it whenever you need it. Paper records can be stored in a filing cabinet.

TIP: When you visit a specialist, get one of their business cards and write the date and the name of the tests/procedures you had on the back of the card. Keep the card in your medical file. If you move to a new city, you will have the contact details of the clinic and can easily have the records shipped to your new doctor.

Keep: Education and employment records

Education and employment documents include transcripts, diplomas, certificates, performance reviews, letters of recommendation, and commendations. These should be kept as long as you are eligible for employment (see “Organizing your employment history“). You may not need your grade school report cards once you graduate from university, but they might be something you wish to share with your own children.

Keep: Religious documents

Religious records, such as baptismal certificates, may form an important part of your family history. They may also be required as proof of your faith should you wish to enroll in a faith-based educational institution or get married in a particular church. Keep these records in a filing cabinet.

One last word

After you’ve passed away, the executor of your estate and/or lawyer may need some of the documents described above, so ensure that this person or people know where and how to access them. If you are the executor to someone’s estate, ask the lawyer and tax accountant how long you need to keep this paperwork after a death and closing of the estate and ensure they are kept safe during the retention period.

8 Comments for “What important documents to keep and how to organize them”

  1. posted by Seng on

    This is such a great list to get paperwork organized and in control! I really want a Neat Receipt so I can go paperless, but yes, that is an amazing list to start with in terms of important documents!


  2. posted by Courtney Edwards on

    Perfect post for tax seasons. There are so many different pieces of mail that are collected throughout the year. It’s refreshing to learn what documents to keep and how to organize them. Thanks for posting! -Courtney

  3. posted by Jen on

    Most of this post is very helpful, but I disagree with the idea that you should keep your “grade school report cards” just so you can “share with your own children.” This kind of thinking is what leads people to keep boxes of childhood papers and toys in the garage, taking up valuable space, when 9 times out of 10 the future children will want nothing to do with these items. I understand that these papers are small and can be filed away but it’s the idea of keeping something just to show someone, someday, that’s the problem. First it’s papers and then it’s boxes of clothes and knickknacks and momentos of all kinds. Aren’t we supposed to be encouraging uncluttering and not holding on to things “just in case”?

  4. posted by Jacki Hollywood Brown on

    Jen: In most cases, I would agree that grade school report cards are not necessarily worth keeping once you’ve graduated from university. However, many people wishing alternative-language (or religion-specific) education will keep their own grade school report cards until their children are enrolled in school. For example, in many English speaking provinces in Canada, parents who wish to send their children to a French-language school must show proof that they attended a French-language school. In Québec, parents who wish to send their children to an English-language school must show proof that they attended an English-language school.

  5. posted by April on

    I love Unclutterer, but sometimes I am frustrated by the subtle assumption of wealth. I’m not middle or upper class, so advice like this:

    “It is very important that you verify with your accountant, tax attorney, and/or financial advisor about document retention for your specific situation.”

    …isn’t applicable to or helpful for me. I can’t afford an accountant, etc. I have to do everything myself. It would be more helpful if you could offer links or something to where I can find out appropriate information to my situation (like, here’s where you can find the laws about tax stuff listed by state), than to say, “Talk to your hired help.”

    This assumption of wealth comes up in Unclutterer fairly often. Hire a cleaner to come twice a month, or talk to your lawyer, or consider buying this very practical and suits-your-needs equipment that costs more than a week’s (or two weeks’) worth of groceries. Not everyone who reads this blog has access to professional level resources, even if they wish they did.

  6. posted by Drew on

    This was really helpful! I can never make myself throw anything away because I never know if I might need it. Thanks.

  7. posted by Jacki Hollywood Brown on

    April: I would love to give specific references to inexpensive professional resources. However, Unclutterer has readers (and writers) from all over the world. Unfortunately, services that are available in one country/state/province are not available in others. It would be impossible for us to list them all.

  8. posted by Gabe on

    This is a very good idea. I’m planning to archive my documents like I did on my old photos after I scanned and digitized them. Having a proper organization is a good habit especially more and more documents are coming.

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