The Ten-Minute Test
If you had to leave home in an emergency, and only take three things with you, what would these be? Could you easily grab your important personal and legal documents in a ready-to-go bag before swinging out the door?
Or let us say that there is no emergency, but you need a document urgently, as when your son is looking for his birth certificate so he could join a school sports competition; or when you need to check if your fire insurance policy should be renewed; or when a loved one is sick and you need his medical documents, and similar situations.
Emergency or not, it’s always best to keep your most important personal legal documents within easy reach, yet in a safe place.
While you may get copies of these documents if they are lost, it would be cumbersome to do so, for this will take time and expenses. Besides, if your important items are heirlooms or rare souvenir pieces, there is no way to recover these if lost or destroyed.
What are these important personal and legal documents?
I have identified the top 15 documents in Part One of this ebook, and developed checklists to help you organize and keep them safe. You may or may not have all the items in the list, which I tried to make as comprehensive as possible. On the other hand, you may have more items than those in this list, so feel free to expand it to suit your purposes.
Part Two shows you different document storage solutions. Depending on how important the documents are, and how often you need to access them, you may choose one or more of the suggested storage solutions.
There is a section for valuables, which will include not just documents but items such as spare car keys, jewelry, heirloom pieces, photographs, and others.
The title refers to your top 15 personal and legal documents. By this, I mean the top 15 kinds or categories, so there can be more than one document for every category. For example, the first set of documents refers to “Civil Registry”, meaning birth certificates, marriage certificates, and death certificates. As we go along, I will enumerate more documents for each category. To help you navigate through these, I included a checklist at the end of each section for your use.
There are also documents that can appear in more than one category. For instance, under “Vehicles,” I included not only vehicle registration papers but also insurance policies. There is also a category entitled “Insurance”, in which the insurance policies should also be included. You have the choice of filing your vehicle insurance policy under the “Vehicles'' category. Then under the “Insurance” category, you can include an index card for the vehicle insurance policy, indicating its policy number, date of issuance, date of expiration, and a statement that the policy itself is filed under the “Vehicles” category. In this way, you can easily access the document. You may also choose to have a photocopy of the vehicle insurance policy in the “Insurance” category in addition to the original that is under the “Vehicles'' category. Go with the method that works best for you.
PART ONE: YOUR TOP 15 DOCUMENTS
1. Civil registry
Civil registry documents are birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates, and records of other incidents that happen in the life of a family. These may include orders or decisions of courts or administrative agencies granting a change of name, correction or cancellation of entries in the civil registry (as when there is an error in the birthplace or spelling of a person’s name), adoption of a child, legal separation, annulment of marriage, declaration of nullity of marriage, or divorce.
These official records have legal implications, giving persons and their relatives legal protection, privileges, and obligations.
Birth certificates are needed for school registration, to obtain a driver's license, marriage license, and passport. These are also needed to apply for social security and avail of retirement benefits, among others.
Persons who are not registered at birth are legally unrecognized because there is no official record of their existence. Birth registration shows a child's identity and nationality. In the web article entitled "Importance of Birth Registration" on the website of Voices of Youth, Social Activist Divya Sharma explains that "Without a birth certificate, children may lack access to services like health care and education. A lack of recognition and support will ultimately make the life of children more complex as they grow older." She adds that "A simple birth certificate opens up the world of opportunities for a child", such as access to health care, education, protection, inheritance, and a permanent record of existence.
Marriage certificates prove the legal relationship of husband and wife. It is needed for several reasons, as when the wife would like to change her surname to that of her husband's in her official documents such as her driver's license or passport. Also, it is needed for health and life insurance benefits, and for tax purposes. In certain countries or states, spouses must transact jointly in buying a house and lot, and copies of marriage certificates may be required as part of the transaction documents.
Death certificates are legal records of persons that have died. This is necessary when the deceased left properties and there are persons who are entitled to inherit from him. If the deceased left bank accounts, these cannot be closed without proof of death and the execution of a deed of extrajudicial settlement or court proceedings for the probate of any Last Will and Testament that he may have left. These are also needed before insurance proceeds, death benefits, and funeral benefits can be claimed. Another important effect of the issuance of a death certificate is that the deceased person's name will be removed from the registry of voters after the local civil registrar reports it to the government agency in charge of election records.
_____ Birth certificates
_____ Marriage certificates
_____ Death certificates
_____ Document proving change of name document
_____ Document proving correction or cancellation of entries
_____ Adoption decree
_____ Legal separation decree
_____ Annulment of marriage decree
_____ Declaration of nullity of marriage
_____ Divorce decree
_____ Others: ____________________
2. Passports and travel documents
Passports are universally recognized identification documents issued by your government. They give information not only about your identity but also your date of birth, place of birth, and nationality.
Passports are owned by the issuing government, and not by you. If you are an American, this is stated in the passport itself. US law states that a US passport "at all times remains the property of the United States and must be returned to the US Government upon demand."
So also, if you are a Philippine citizen, your passport is owned by the government according to the Philippine Passport Act of 1996 (Republic Act No. 8239); you are a mere possessor, and you should not surrender it to anyone other than the government.
Depending on your country's laws, it may or may not be easy to obtain replacements for lost passports. In some countries, the requirements are quite stringent, requiring clearing periods and police reports.
There are instances when a person is not entitled to a passport. In such a case, the government may issue him a Travel Document allowing him to cross international borders based on a treaty, to allow him to go to his home country or to a designated destination. This is usually allowed for one-way travel only.
For children who travel abroad with both parents, they need to have their own passports. However, when they travel with one parent only, or when they travel with adults who are not their parents, they need additional documents showing that one or both parents have authorized them to travel with a specific companion.
In the United States, this is known as the Minor Travel Consent Form, and a sample can be found on the website of the US Passport Service Guide. In addition, there is a Child Medical Consent Form allowing the child’s companion to make certain medical decisions if necessary when the child is on travel. More information and a sample form can be found at Formswift.com.
In the Philippines, the document needed by a minor is known as Travel Clearance, and it is issued by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). All the requirements for securing a Travel Clearance are found on the DSWD website. This is for minors who are traveling with persons who are not their parents.
You should also include in this category your other international identification documents such as the Permanent Residency Card also known as Green Card in the United States, the Hong Kong Identification Card for HK residents.
You can also include travel-related documents like mileage rewards cards, frequent flyer cards, special travel privilege cards, travel vouchers, vacation certificates, cruise certificates, promotional vacation giveaways, airline tickets, and others.
_____ Travel documents
_____ Minor travel consent form / travel clearance
_____ Residency cards
_____ Mileage rewards cards / frequent flyer cards
_____ Special travel privilege cards
_____ Travel vouchers
_____ Vacation certificates
_____ Cruise certificates
_____ Promotional giveaways
_____ Airline tickets
_____ Others: ____________________
3. Real estate documents
Land titles, condominium certificates of title, and similar documents are proof that you own a house, lot, condominium unit, or other real estate. These are documents issued by the appropriate government agency to property owners. The documents given to property owners are "owner's duplicates" because the originals are kept in the custody of the government official in charge of the registry of property.
Tax declarations are issued by the local government unit that has jurisdiction over your house and lot, or condominium unit. These contain the assessed value of the property on which annual real property taxes are based. These must be filed together with the official receipts showing payment of real property taxes. There may be other terminologies for these in different jurisdictions, but all these are proofs of real estate ownership which you must have copies of. If there are transactions involving your real estate such as a lease, mortgage, or donation, you would be better off including these in this category, because it is easier to find these with related documents.