Storing your important documents is all about preparation. Whether you’re preparing to file taxes, get married, pay off a loan, or just want to feel ready for the unexpected, taking a closer look at your pile of papers can really pay off.
Some documents are crucial to keep around when you start to organize your financial records, while others are just begging to become future confetti. That’s right—there are plenty of documents you can send straight to the shredder. But how long should you hold on to those files? And which forms need a permanent place in your records?
Check out our ultimate checklist of important documents and find out how to keep your information safe.
What are important documents?
Important documents are forms you may want to hold onto indefinitely. These documents can come in all shapes and sizes, including personal records, legal contracts, or government-issued statements. You can save physical copies in a locked and protected location or use helpful services like Pillar Life that help you virtually secure and share your documents with your loved ones.
But anyone with a mailbox can tell you that there are plenty of documents that you don't need to save. Some paperwork and records are more common and potentially disposable. Specific bills, receipts, and even old government forms may be ready for a home in your shredder.
Important document checklist
- Social Security card
- Driver’s license
- Tribal identification
- Birth certificate
- Death certificate
- Marriage certificates
- Divorce certificates
- Armed Forces discharge papers
- State and Federal Income Tax Returns (1040)
- Wage and Tax Statements (W-2)
- Mortgage Interest Statements (W-2G)
- Student Loan Interest Statements (1098-E)
- Miscellaneous Income (1099-MISC)
- Qualified Retirement Plans (5329)
- Gift Tax Return (709)
- Itemized deduction records
- Social media
- Personal websites
- Online businesses
- Recent medication information
- Pharmacy information for prescriptions
- Contact information for your primary or specialist doctors
- Online medical portal information
- Family history medical records
- Proof of health insurance
- Health Care Proxy (HCP)
- Living Will
- Do Not Resuscitate (DNR)
- Checking accounts
- Savings accounts
- Bank number
- Routing number
- Will copies
- Trust copies
- Copies of previous versions of the will/trust
- Power Of Attorney information
- Name of attorney or law firm that helped create the documents, if applicable
Identity documents are any forms that can help verify your existence. They could include official cards, certificates, or multi-page documents. They might track significant life events, citizenship, or your membership within a particular group.
Your birth certificate is an essential document to secure—without it, you can’t apply for a passport, enroll in school, or join the military. Your birth certificate also proves two critical pieces of information: your age and citizenship. But where should you keep such a vital document?
Your birth certificate is one form that can’t be stored virtually. When using your birth certificate, only the official paper copy with your state’s stamp and signature will work; a photocopy of the certificate will not suffice in most cases. So you’ll need to file your birth certificate in a secure location, like a locked file cabinet or safe.
If you’ve lost your birth certificate, you can contact your state’s vital records office to purchase a new one.
Social Security cards
You’ll probably use your social security number (if you haven’t memorized it by now, you will soon) more than you’ll use your physical card. But there are times—like beginning a new job—when you’ll need to pull out that small unlaminated piece of paper. Otherwise, you can store the card with other important identity documents like your birth certificate in a secure location.
If you’ve misplaced your social security card, you can replace it by filing for an official request in your state.
Tax season can be stressful enough without trying to decipher what to keep and what to shred. You’ll need to hold onto some of your tax documents for several years, but virtual copies can be easy to store and use if necessary.
According to the IRS, most people should hold onto their tax returns for three years after completion. But there are a few exceptions to this rule: If you failed to report a significant amount of income, claimed a loss for worthless securities, or filed a fraudulent return, you may need to keep your documents for up to seven years or possibly indefinitely.
You can keep paper copies of your most recent tax returns, but you have several options for securing your taxes virtually too. Many online tax-filing services keep digital records of your most recent filings.
You should keep your Wage and Tax Statements (W-2s) for as long as you keep the rest of your tax records; for most Americans, this means for three years. The IRS may request your W-2s during a tax audit. And while they accept some electronic records, it’s best to keep your paper copies of your W-2s.
In the age of online technology, you may have more account information or documents than ever before. But what can you do to keep your online accounts protected?
Your email can hold countless records, so it’s crucial to keep your account information secure. Your login information (username and password) are significant factors for protecting your email account. A strong password should contain a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special symbols.
Some platforms offer multiple layers of protection to your email, including security questions, phone numbers, and back-up accounts. Other ways to keep your online data secure include using security software, avoiding online phishing scams, locking your laptop, and closely reading privacy policies.
Medical documents are incredibly significant if you have a chronic medical condition or are taking care of a family member with health issues. But even if you’re healthy, being prepared for unforeseen medical emergencies can save you in a bind.
A living will allows you to determine which medical procedures you’ll accept if you’re ever incapacitated and unable to communicate with your doctors. This legal document can dictate whether you receive a feeding tube, hydration, respiratory assistance, or other life-sustaining procedures.
But, each state has specific laws for how to file a living will. You may need an attorney, notaries, or witnesses involved to complete this document. You can secure your living will with a paper or digital copy and share copies with trusted friends or family members in case of an emergency.
Health Care Proxy
This document allows you to assign another person as your health care agent—giving them the right to make medical decisions on your behalf if you are incapacitated. This form is very similar to a living will, but it allows someone else to make medical decisions for you. If you’re female, you may want to have both a living will and a health care proxy because, in many states, living wills become invalid if you are pregnant.
Again, each state has specific laws for filing these forms. You, your proxy, and any attorneys involved should have either a physical or virtual copy of the document.
Your bank account information is important to protect: it allows you to access your funds, pay your rent, or receive a direct deposit. While your bank will have all of your information filed away for you, a few pieces of information are helpful to have on hand.
Checking and savings accounts
Your checking and savings accounts hold a lot of information, including your account and routing numbers, interest rates, and bank details. With online banking growing in popularity, you may have access to all of this information online. But this means you'll need to remember a passcode or security question to gain entry to your accounts. When it comes to money, it's always a good idea to have a back-up copy of your checking account information (and extra checkbooks) in a secure, locked location.
End-of-life documents can help protect your offspring and secure the distribution of your assets. These documents can protect both the young and old during times of significant transition.
Your will can contain specific directions for what to do after your death. It may include funeral plans, financial distribution directions, and child custody transfers. While preparing a will may take some time, the process is relatively simple. Once completed, you’ll want to secure current and previous copies of the will and the attorney or law firm's name that helped create the document. Ensure the executor of your will has access to their own copy and knows what to expect when the time comes.
A trust is a document that you can have in addition to your will that further secures your financial assets. It transfers your finances to a third party, keeps your information private, and prevents individuals from going to probate court to contest your final wishes. There are several different types of trusts to meet your individual needs.
You can secure your will and trust in the same way; a copy of your trust agreement, bank accounts associated with the trust, and information on your appointed trustee should all be kept in a secure location. You should share copies of your trust with anyone involved, including family members, your trustee, and attorneys.
How long should you keep common documents?
You won’t need to hold onto all of the documents that come into your life; you can shred some papers immediately and others once you no longer need them. Here is a list of some standard documents:
- Household utility bills
It’s unlikely that you’ll need to hold onto these forms for an extended time. You can shred most bills after payments go through, but keeping a copy—either paper or virtual—for an extra month is a good idea in case you need proof of payment. You can immediately throw away most receipts unless you need them to balance your budget or prove tax deductions on your return.
Checklist of Important Documents
We all need to keep track of dozens of essential documents at different stages in our lives — for ourselves and our loved ones. Learn how to safely store and securely share your most crucial documents with Pillar. Start your free 14-day trial today and see what the future of organization looks like.