The Essential Guide to Organizing Your Important Documents



Important documents feel just that... important.


So important that you might be afraid to get them wrong, which is making you worried about pulling them together at all.


You might be thinking, "I just need more info, and then I'll get my important stuff together. I have to get this right, so I'll wait until I know exactly what to do, and then I'll do the thing."


Let me tell you from experience as a constantly recovering perfectionist, you're never going to have every piece of info and every perfect template.


Your goal is to cover your bases and upgrade / update over time.


Why?


Because you want to have easy access and reference to your important information for you and your loved ones, no matter the situation.


It's time to start pulling your important documents together.


And don't worry, you'll remember specific things and be able to prune as you go along.


To help you get started, here are the main categories that important documents fall into and how to plan which ones you specifically need.


(Disclaimer, I'm a professional organizer, not a financial advisor or legal expert. This is simply a list of possible options for you to get your papers organized. Please check with your team of experts to confirm that you have the right documents or if you need to add or adjust.


This is also not an exhaustive list. These recommendations are common documents you might run across as you start your personal system. Feel free to adjust and customize as you see fit!)


1. Identity documents


These are the most basic and important of all important documents, and you'll want copies of yours as well as anyone you're responsible for - such as children, aging parents, a spouse or domestic partner, etc.).


They include:


  • Birth certificates

  • Social security cards

  • Green card or travel visas

  • Copies of your license or photo ID

  • Marriage license

  • Divorce papers

  • Death certificates (for deceased parents or spouses)

The type of document might change according to your citizenship, status, and life stage, but these are the building blocks of your important document files.


Make sure you've got at least one copy of all of these documents that apply to you and your loved ones, and reach out to the appropriate government agency to replace any that might be missing.



2. Estate planning documents


Documents in the estate planning category tend to be the ones you might be tempted to save until later... and then "later" becomes "never."


Make it a priority to get the basics of each of these documents together, and then you can worry about upgrading and making them more formal later.


  • Will

  • Trust

  • Advance directive

  • Durable power(s) of attorney

The name of the game with these papers is peace of mind. When you have even simple versions of these together, you can rest easy knowing you and your family are covered.



3. Financial Documents


This category is usually the section with the most pieces of paper and the widest net as far as your presence in the world (online or otherwise).


Your financial documents help you and your loved ones get access to the things you need when you need them, not after lengthy phone calls and flipping back and forth trying to guess and reset passwords.


  • Financial accounts (checking, savings, investments, etc.)

  • Credit / charge cards (including store cards)

  • Loans

You will be shocked how big your footprint is in the financial world when you start gathering the account info for all of your checking, savings, lines of credit, investments, loans, and other accounts that are specific to you.


Be consistent until you have all of these and then add or subtract as you open and close accounts.



4. Assets and ownership


While assets are technically part of financials, for the sake of making this whole process less confusing, let's consider them a separate category.


An asset is anything that increases in value over time, typically like a house, stocks and bonds, jewelry, etc.


Other things decrease in value over time but can bring us a lot of joy and pleasure, like a car, a boat, or other vehicles.


(Philosophically, our pets fall under this category. They bring a lot of joy but typically don't bring in their own income unless they're YouTube or TikTik famous).


You want to be able to check, verify, and confirm your ownership of all the things you have that are worth more than you pay to maintain them, such as:


  • House deeds

  • Home inventories

  • Stocks, bonds, funds, CDs, etc.

  • Jewelry, watches, or other appraisals

For all of your other high-ticket items, keep records of your ownership and the big maintenance updates on each. These items might include:

  • Car title

  • Vehicle title (like a boat or private plane)

  • Receipts for large purchases

This category is incredibly broad and personal, so add whatever you want to include as part of your particular ownership profile.


If you're on the fence, go ahead and add it. You can always remove it later if you find you don't need it.



5. Insurance info


Whether you need to refer to this info or whether you want to make sure your loved ones have it when they need it, collecting all of your insurance info in one place saves a ton of time and energy.


Especially because insurance and legal matters tend to make people stressed.


The easier you make this process, the better you're going to feel.


Look for documents like your:


  • Car insurance card and policy

  • Home owners or renters insurance and policy

  • Health insurance card and policy

  • Life insurance policy

  • Funeral arrangements

  • Prenuptial agreement(s)


6. Taxes


I would put taxes under financials, but they're such a huge question mark for most people that I want you to know what to do with these papers specifically.


How long should you keep your tax documents?


According to the irs.gov, you should keep the actual tax return forever.


But, you can get rid of all of the supporting documents (receipts, bills, forms, etc.) after 7 years.


That'll thin out your folders considerably, trust me!



7. Passwords and personal access


This category gets overlooked a lot because there often aren't official documents or templates for them, but nothing will slow down your access to your stuff (or someone else's) faster than not having the password.


Keep a list of your passwords on a piece of paper in a safe spot or behind a 2-step verification vault in the cloud.


And yes, I know it's ironic to keep your passwords behind a password protected piece of software, but it can be a surefire way to protect your info AND make sure you and your people have access when you really need it.


Here's what you need on your password log:


  • Name of the website or site

  • Your username or login credentials

  • Password

  • Date it was last updated

  • Secret question and answer

  • Backup email or phone number for 2-step verification

This one piece of paper alone will save you so many HOURS of time and energy.


Be sure to update this each time you change a password, or go back through every 3-6 months to make sure everything still works correctly.


Upkeep is as important for this password log as making it in the first place.


Add an update day to your calendar, and get someone to keep you company, help, or hold you accountable to do it. You won't regret it.



8. Optional categories


There are several optional categories that might work for you, or you might want to shift some of the documents above into other categories that make more sense for you.


Go for it! It's your system, and it needs to work for you and your loved ones.


Additional categories you might have in your files might include:


  • Travel documents

  • Business documents

  • Pet records

  • Memberships

  • Subscriptions

  • Team / advisor contacts, contracts, and terms

  • Medical

Pick the categories that make the most sense for you, and gather the documents you need in a folder for each.


8a. Travel Documents


To give you a bit more detail on this category, your travel documents can be a combination of permanent reference or temporary info for your current travel plans.


The goal here is to make it easy for someone back home to help you in case of an emergency, whether that's confirming info when you accidentally delete an email, cancelling stolen cards, or making sure your kids and pets are well cared for while you're away.


These papers (mostly copies of ones you have with you) include:


  • Copies of your ID and passport

  • Copy of travel visas

  • Copy of travel and airline cards

  • Copy of credit cards (and login info)

  • Rewards accounts

  • Itinerary and contact info

  • Temporary authorization (usually medical for kids and / or pets)

If some of these don't apply to you, you likely won't need to add them to your collection. It's good reference to make sure your bases are covered though.


Copies of the permanent documents can stay in the file as long as they're current (not expired), but temporary authorizations and itineraries need to be updated for every trip.



8b. Business Documents


If you own a business or are a partner, it's important to have all of this information ready, both for your family and for anyone involved in your business.


Look out for these papers to add to your file:


  • License

  • Registration

  • Certificates

  • Insurance

  • Business partners agreement

  • Continuation plans

  • Contacts

  • Bank accounts

  • Credit cards

  • Advisor contact info

  • Website login

  • Subscriptions

  • Passwords

  • Profile account details (Google business page, directories, etc.)

As a small business owner myself, I know it's easy to think of your business as separate and forget that it comes with its own collections or papers and info.


Don't skip this step.


Treat your business the way you've been treating your personal accounts, and gather everything together.


Whether you're a solopreneur or have a big company, you won't regret having this information to hand.



9. Paper you absolutely don't need to keep


Use your best judgement, and don't throw anything away that would genuinely make you feel anxious, confused, or vulnerable.


If you're looking for a reason to thin out your paper collection though, I hereby give you permission to discard (shred and recycle) these documents with a clear conscience:


  • Utility statements and bills, especially if they're more than a year old

  • Receipts for personal purchases (meals, clothes, stuff)

  • Old check registers

  • Old and outdated policies

We have the best of intentions to go back through and make big lists, compare our expenses over time, or simply be able to look back at how much things cost once upon a time.


Do we ever do those things?


Hardly ever.


Give yourself the gift of unburdening unnecessary paper from your home and your files.


These types of documents bloat your files, making them packed and confusing.


In addition, you can access old utility bills and compare by going into your online account or calling the company and asking for copies of older years for a small fee.


If you're keeping something simply for fear of missing something important, consult with your financial advisor, lawyer, or other trusted expert to confirm.


They'll be happy to help, and you'll be happy to have the right amount of papers in your home - no more, no less.



RESOURCES:


Book -


Nine Nights: Your New Little Black Book for Personal Financial Empowerment by Laurie Teal


I followed the steps in this book to put my important documents together. Combining that experience with helping dozens of clients brought about this list.


Website -


www.irs.gov/businesses/small-businesses-self-employed/how-long-should-i-keep-records


This page explains in detail all the retention guidelines for documents so you can go straight to the source.