You should carefully consider your options when it comes to deciding how to store personal documents and records. You must always balance two factors: security versus ease of access in an emergency. Both are important, but often people privilege security over ease of access - which can cause major problems when a document is needed immediately.
Here are the the three common ways people store legal documents:
Safety Deposit Box
A safety deposit box is a fireproof metal box which can be rented from your bank.
- Security level: This is a very secure place for irreplaceable items, like heirloom jewelry or your stamp collection, as well as important documents like your birth certificate. The bank restricts who can access your box, even if they have a key. Usually, anyone who accesses your box must be a co-renter on the bank's rental agreement, or must have been granted as your agent - which must be witnessed by a bank employee.
- Ease of access: The nature of the safety deposit box is that you and other people cannot access the contents easily - it's impossible to for anyone to access the box during non-banking hours, and it is very difficult for someone other than you to access the contents. That can be problematic if you are incapacitated, and a family member needs access to your living will or health care power of attorney documents in an emergency. It's also tricky if you are traveling and need access to these documents.
Filing Cabinet at Home
A metal filing cabinet that most people have at home, and which can be obtained at any office supply store.
- Security level: The home filing cabinet is probably the least secure place for your legal documents. Your documents are only as safe as the lock on your front door or home security system (if you have one). Also, your documents are susceptible to potential disasters like fires or floods.
- Ease of access: Your documents are fairly accessible in an emergency -- anyone with a key to your front door can access them, as long as they know where to find them in your home. Of course, they can also be easily accessed by a thief who breaks into your house.
A Home Safe
A small fire-proof safe, locked with a key or a combination, can be purchased for less than $100 and kept in your home.
- Security level: A fire-proof safe at home is the halfway point between an extremely secure safety deposit box and a fairly unsecure and unsafe home filing cabinet. As long as your home safe is bolted down or hidden somewhere a thief can't easily find it, it's very secure.
- Ease of access: Generally, the home safe is a good compromise between security and accessibility. You can share the location and the combination with someone else, making it accessible at any time by you or someone else. You still need to share a key or the combination with someone you trust, in case you are incapacitated. This makes the home fire-safe or fire-box a good option for storing important original documents, especially if they need to be accessed in an emergency or on short notice.