A good rule to follow is to keep the item at home unless it is a legal document or is difficult to replace or duplicate. Then it should be kept in a safe-deposit box or possibly left with your attorney.

Generally speaking, you do not need to keep the following in a safe deposit box: income tax returns, education records, employment records, bankbooks, social security cards, guarantees, and burial instructions.

Every family household has some important records. Each of us should have a birth certificate or an acceptable substitute. Since there are many occasions when the information on your birth certificate will be needed, it is important that you keep it in a safe place, preferably in a safe deposit box.

If you have lost or misplaced birth certificates, consider applying for replacements now, before there is a pressing need. Otherwise, you may have to wait for one you need quickly.

State registration of births has been mandatory since 1920, and you can contact your State agency to get a copy. The Bureau of the Census also will search its files for proof of age.

By the same token, there will be death certificate for every person someday. These will be needed occasionally and also are best kept in a safe deposit box.

If you need to obtain these kinds of records, the publication, Where to Write for Vital Records is available for viewing or purchase from the Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, Colorado 81009.

Other important documents to be kept in your safe deposit box include marriage certificates, divorce or other legal papers regarding dissolution of marriage, adoption papers, citizenship records, service papers, and any other document that is either government or court recorded.

The original copy of a will, in most cases, is kept in the safe of the attorney who prepared it. This is highly desirable, since it may save complications later. The client receives two carbon copies, one of which may be put into his or her own safe deposit box. However, there could be a legal delay in getting this copy at his or her death. The third copy, therefore, should be kept at home where it is readily accessible.

Some of your important papers, such as investments, are of a business or financial nature. Certificates for securities are nonnegotiable (can't be sold or legally transferred) until they are signed by the owner. Nevertheless, such certificates can be lost or stolen, and the signature can be forged. In either case replacement involves both cost and delay. Such certificates then, when not left with the broker, should be kept in the owner's safe deposit box.

Government bonds can be replaced without cost, but there will be a delay of several months. So it is best to keep these in the box also.

Among other investment-type documents that require safekeeping are papers that serve as proof of ownership, such as deeds for real estate, other mortgage papers, contracts, automobile titles (if this applies in your State), leases, notes, and such special papers as patents and copyrights.

Source: KEEPING FAMILY/HOUSEHOLD RECORDS at the Federal Citizen Information Center (FCIC).
The following is from www.ag.uidaho.edu/lsyff/docs/LSYFF%20Organize.doc

Permanent and Semi-Permanent Records

Keep in a safe deposit box or a fireproof, waterproof, burglar-proof home safe--with a list of the contents of the box in your home file. FAMILY RECORDS
Item to keep Reason for keeping How long to keep
Baptismal and confirmation records Acceptable evidence of birth date when obtaining a delayed birth certificate; proof of church membership. Indefinitely.
Copyrights and patents Proof of ownership rights. Indefinitely.
Insurance policies:
List of policy numbers, name of each insured, beneficiary, company, agent
Reference for kinds and amounts of coverage; provides record of payments and premiums and location of policy; provides record of claims. Until collected or expires; until all claims settled; duplicate policies can be easily obtained.
Passport Identification required for most international travel. Retain expired passport to satisfy application requirements for a new one, then discard.
Wills Reference; essential for settlement of estate. Keep original indefinitely in safe or with attorney or clerk of district court.
Item to keep Reason for keeping How long to keep
Abstract for real estate To prove clear title. Until property is sold.
Automobile title and bill of sale Proof of ownership. Until property is sold.
Burial lot deed--note number of plots Proof of ownership. Indefinitely.
Deeds and mortgages: Title policy; property insurance policy; mortgage; receipts for payments on mortgage. Record day, month, and year you acquire or sell property; gross sale price; depreciation; legal fees & expense of sale. For income tax and estate tax purposes; keep records of improvement to compute capital gains or losses. Until property is sold.
Household inventory: Appraisals, photos/videos of valuables Insurance claims. Updated annually. Dispose of property no longer owned.
Property easements Proof of use rights. Until property is sold.
Item to keep Reason for keeping How long to keep
Contracts, notes, debts:
Promissory notes, mortgages, liens, installment contracts, and chattels
Evidence of collectible or payable debts; status for estate settlement. Until estate is settled.
Household inventory:
Description of article, date purchased, and purchase price
For insurance settlement. Keep up-to-date as you dispose of or add new items.
Investment certificates:
Stocks, bonds, CDs, real estate
Proof of purchase. After redemption amount received and taxes are settled on gain or loss.
Item to keep Reason for keeping How long to keep
Birth certificate (certified copy or original) Proof of birth. Indefinitely.
Death certificates Proof of death for Social Security benefits and estate settlement. Until benefits are secured and estate settled; note cause of death for family health history.
Marriage records For proof of marriage to collect insurance, Social Security, and veteran's federal benefit pension compensations; to settle estate. Until all claims are settled, benefits are received, and estate is settled.
Divorce decree To clear legal requirements for remarriage. Indefinitely.
Adoption papers To prove ages to start to school; for obtaining birth certificates for some jobs; to obtain driver's license; for marriage license; for registering to vote; to qualify for Social Security benefits; to obtain passports; to determine estate heirs. Indefinitely.
Military service:
Service record; summary of benefits
To qualify for retirement, insurance, medical, education, and other benefits. Recommend that county or city clerk create additional official record of discharge certificates.
Citizenship and naturalization papers To obtain certain types of jobs; to obtain passport; prove eligibility to vote. Indefinitely.

Records to Keep at Home

Item to keep Reason to keep How long to keep
Education records/diplomas Proof of attendance and degrees. Indefinitely.
Employment records To determine retirement benefits or if there is a worker's compensation claim. Keep last official announcement earned benefits; keep record until all worker's compensation claims are settled; keep beyond retirement in case you decide to re-enter the workforce.
Insurance policies:
Automobile; personal liability; homeowner's or renters; life; health; disability
Reference for details of coverage. Until property is sold or policy expires and until all claims are settled. Review annually. Until policy expires or is redeemed.
Licenses to practice (copy) To verify credentials. Usually displayed; replace with most recent verification; keep copy in a safe place.
Family advisers: Names, addresses and telephone numbers Ready reference when need (medical, legal, etc.) arises. Update when changes are made.
Medical history:
Immunizations, operations, illness, medications, etc.
Reference. Indefinitely on all family members; update often.
Funeral plan documents Reference. Indefinitely; update as needed.
Letter of last instructions Reference. Indefinitely; update as needed.
Subscriptions and buying clubs:
Titles with order & renewal dates;
membership details
Reference. Until subscription expires; handle complaints or cancellations.
Organizational memberships Reference. Until membership is dropped.
Keys (labeled) and safe combination safe-deposit box, car, house, home safe Access as needed. Until property is sold or safe-deposit box is relinquished.
Item to keep Reason for keeping How long to keep
Certificate of title and bills of sale Essential for transfer to new owner when car is sold. Until car is sold or disposed of.
Guarantees and warranties For proof of date of purchase; to determine service and parts guaranteed. Until no longer valid.
Household inventories:
Record item, cost and date of purchase or sale.
For insurance claims to establish values; net worth statements. Pictures of items are helpful when making claims. Keep list up-to-date as you dispose of or add household items; make a copy also for safe-deposit box.
Appliance and other manuals For reference on use and care. Until sold or discarded.
Pets: Pedigree; health and license records Identification.
Item to keep Reason for keeping How long to keep
Account books: Goals, spending plan, record of income and expenditures For reference and comparison; used to determine net worth and make changes in income and spending patterns. Can show profit or loss over multiple years.
Checking accounts: Number, location, and canceled checks or photocopy pages of checks List all account numbers with addresses, phone numbers; save checks needed for income tax deductions and proof of important payments. Minimum of at least six years of checks.
Credit card information:
Names, addresses and phone numbers of issuing companies; card numbers
Purchase of items on credit; use of card and payment of balances due can give you a good credit rating. If card is not in current use, cancel by writing to company; if lost or stolen, notify company immediately by phone.
Housing records:
Improvement receipts, lease/rental agreement copies, utility deposit receipts, mortgage payments, property tax records
Compute capital gains/losses; income tax basis in residential replacements. Keep records until property is sold.
Receipts and receipted bills Proof of payment. For charge accounts--
if they are tax deductible; proof of value on insurance claims.
Keep credit card receipts until bill is paid; keep larger item receipts while items are in your possession.
Safe-deposit box inventory Information for family members. Revise list annually.
Item to keep Reason for keeping How long to keep
Financial institution monthly statements and/or savings pass books Reference for completed transactions: Deposits and withdrawals. Keep account locations and numbers in safe-deposit box; minimum of a year.
Income tax returns:
Federal and state (if applicable) returns with substantiating records
Verification of taxes paid. Three years minimum for possible IRS audit; six years if 25% of gross income omitted; unlimited if fraudulent report.
Investments: Copies of mutual funds, stocks, bonds, real estate, CDs etc. Statement of earnings and transactions as reference information. Keep initial and current investment quarterly statements.
Retirement records: Employee pensions, annuities, Keoghs and IRAs For reference; proof of employer-employee contributions, payments and benefits received or payable. Until fund is exhausted.
Item to keep Reason for keeping How long to keep
Living will (original with additional copies made) For reference specifying your end-of-life care; instructions to your doctor and other health care providers (i.e., hospital, nursing facility, hospice, or home health agency; instructions for close family members). Keep a list of where copies are distributed to be able to provide most recent copy if changes are made; don't store in a safe- deposit box that may be difficult to access without patient's permission.
Will and/or trust (copies) Unsigned copy for home reference. Update copy if will or trust is changed.
Durable power of attorney:
Specify the extent of power delegated to one or more persons: generally, for health care, and for financial decisions
Gives others the power to make health care and/or business decisions when you are no longer able to make decisions on your own. Replace by latest version if changes are made.
Personal representative and guardian appointments For official notification of agent to settle estate and provide care of children under legal age. Until official duties are completed.
Social Security card Needed to apply for benefits; identification number needed on many types of applications and records. Indefinitely.
Papers to Carry with You
Item to carry Reason for carrying
Credit and/or electronic banking cards Identification and to pay for or charge purchases; to make other transactions.
Driver's license Identification and evidence of legal eligibility to drive.
Auto insurance card To identify issuer in case of accident.
Donor card To donate body organs and to donate body to medical school or training program for use in medical education or research.
Medical information:
Blood type, allergies, diseases (such as diabetes, heart disease, epilepsy)
Emergency treatment. Place note in household files for ready reference in case of loss.
Health insurance card (Medicare and/or other) Identification to use during hospital admittance.
Personal identification:
Name, address, and phone for yourself and friend or relative contact
Identification, especially in case of emergency.
Doctor preferred Notification in case of emergency.
Organization membership cards Identification and proof of membership.

See Also:
KEEPING FAMILY/HOUSEHOLD RECORDS at the Federal Citizen Information Center (FCIC).
" Your Important Papers: What to Keep and Where" from the Montana State U.
Where to Write for Vital Records

last updated 26 Aug 2005