By Marsha Goetting, PhD, CFP®, CFCS, Professor and MSU Extension Economics Specialist; Keri Hayes, MSU Extension Economics Publications Assistant; and Katelyn Andersen, Rocky Mountain Laboratories’ Well-Being and Workplace Environment Facilitator


THE BEGINNING OF EACH NEW STAGE OR CHANGE IN LIFE calls for a fresh look at the types of records and papers to keep on file. Any recent life change can be a good reminder to update important papers. Examples of life changes include marriage, divorce, having a baby or adopting a child, buying, or selling property, a death in the family, or changing jobs.

New roles and responsibilities call for new ways of keeping personal records. Households can be viewed as mini businesses since many of the functions of planning, purchasing and record keeping are the same as they are for any other type of business, large or small. Keeping financial records is a vital part of life. They are important for your credit standing, essential to help save money on income taxes, and provide a continuing indication of your financial progress.

A systematic plan for keeping track of important papers can save hours of anxious searching, can help preserve peace and harmony and make it easier to cope with emergency situations. Record keeping, however, is more than a matter of neatness and order. Legal and safety factors enter in as well. Some records and papers can be kept in a home file for ready access, while others should be placed in a safe deposit box or in a fireproof, waterproof, and burglar-proof home safe. A good rule to follow is to keep the item at home unless it is a legal document difficult to replace or duplicate. In that case the
document should be kept in a safe deposit box or left with your attorney.

Plan and evaluate the need for storage of all paper records to determine which should be discarded and where they should be stored. Make your decisions and file each paper accordingly. Do not just stack papers and plan to return to them later. This may result in documents becoming lost and wasting valuable time searching for or replacing them.

Home Filing System

A home filing system for important documents is the key to managing family papers. Items to be kept at home do not require filing cabinets or special offices. A corner for storage can be set up in any room in the house. A cardboard drawer or metal box can serve adequately for storage of bills and family papers. Set up filing systems to meet your needs. Remember, every type of important paper should be assigned a certain space and kept there until needed.

The following guide to record keeping will help you create a personalized and efficient system for preserving and safeguarding important family papers. Moreover, it will provide a handy reference for deciding what items to keep, why to keep them, where they should be kept and how long to keep them.

If you are new to filing papers, first get organized by creating files in advance. Make a folder for every section listed in this publication. When the time comes to add a document, having a file ready will make you more likely to file it rather than adding it to a stack of papers. If the family travels frequently or has critical medical needs, prepare a file for each family member’s doctor records, past dental records, immunization records, etc. for quick reference and
travel purposes.

Duplicate copies of many family papers should be kept at home for immediate reference. Important reasons for storing some family papers at certain locations are explained in each category. However, you are the one who makes the final decision about how and where to store documents. You make the ultimate decision of what is best for you and your family. There may be records which require more detail or less detail depending on your stage in life.

Permanent and Semi-Permanent Records

Many records should be kept for long periods of time. Before deciding to toss any out, look them over carefully to see if they are permanent or semi-permanent records. Keep these types of records in a safe deposit box or a fireproof, waterproof, burglar-proof home safe – with a list of the contents in your home file. Because of the danger of identity theft, consider destroying any outdated documents that should be discarded. Important data to destroy or shred includes documents with name, address, Social Security Number, and debit/credit card numbers. Go through credit card offers and detach and destroy personal information.

Identity Theft

If your identity is stolen, contact the Montana Office of Consumer Protection, 406-444-4500 or 800-481-6896. The office will provide steps on how to recover from identity theft.

The Federal Trade Commission has a website for reporting identity theft and developing a recovery plan. The site asks a list of questions and for a report of what happened. The FTC uses the information to create a personal recovery plan.

Once you create an account, the site reviews each recovery step, and updates the plan as needed. You determine how much personal information is provided to the FTC. The FTC enters your information into a secure online database that law enforcement agencies use in their investigations. The FTC pre-fills forms and letters for you to use and tracks progress.

Family Records (Keep a copy of an inventory of important family records and their location in your home file.)
Baptismal and confirmation records
Acceptable evidence of birth date when obtaining a birth certificate; proof of church membership
Copyrights and patents
Proof of ownership rights
Immunization records
(COVID, smallpox, measles, etc.)
Review to prevent unnecessary duplication of shots
Update as necessary
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; or until claim settled; duplicate copies of policies can be obtained from the insurance
Identification required for international travel
Retain expired passport to satisfy
application requirements for a new one,
then discard or destroy.
Reference; essential for settlement of estate
Keep original indefinitely in safe
deposit box or with attorney or Clerk of
the District Court
Property Records
Abstract for real estate 
To prove clear title
Until property is sold
Burial lot deed (note number of plots)
Proof of ownership
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 and
expense of sale)
For income tax and estate tax purposes, keep records of improvements to compute capital gains or losses
Until property is sold to prove adjusted
basis of your home
Household inventory
(appraisals, photos/videos of valuables)
Insurance claims
Update annually; dispose of when
property is no longer owned
Property easements
Proof of use rights
Until property is sold
Vehicle title and bill of sale
Proof of ownership
Until vehicle is sold
Financial Records
Contracts and debts
(promissory notes, mortgages, liens,
installment contracts)
Evidence of collectible or payable debts; status for estate settlement
Until estate is settled
Household inventory
(include warranties, description of item, date purchased, and purchase price)
For insurance settlement
Keep up to date as you dispose of or
add new items
(stocks, bonds, mutual funds, certificates of deposit, and U.S. Savings Bonds)
Proof of purchase
After redemption amount received
and income taxes are settled on gain
or loss
Legal Records
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
Birth certificate
(certified copy or original)
Proof of birth
Citizenship and naturalization papers
To obtain certain types of jobs; to obtain passport; prove eligibility to vote
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
Divorce decree
(dissolution of marriage)
To clear legal requirements for remarriage
Marriage records/settlement order
For proof of marriage to collect insurance, Social Security, or retirement benefits/divorce settlement; Veteran’s federal benefit pension compensations; to settle estate
Until all claims are settled, benefits
Military service record and summary of benefits
To qualify for retirement, insurance, medical, education, burial and other benefits


Family Records 
Burial plan documents
Indefinitely, update as needed
Digital subscriptions and websites
(passwords and codes)
Access as needed
As long as subscription lasts
Education records/diplomas
Proof of attendance and degrees
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
Family advisers
(names, addresses, telephone numbers, and email addresses)
Reference when needed (when medical or legal issues arise)
Until property is sold, or policy expires and until all claims are settled; review annually
Insurance policies
(vehicles and vessels; personal
liability; homeowner’s or renters; life; health; disability)
Reference for details of coverage
Keep original indefinitely in safe
deposit box or with attorney or Clerk of the District Court
(labeled – to safe-deposit box, car,
house, home safe; safe combination)
Access as needed
Until property is sold, or safe-deposit
box is relinquished
Licenses and certifications
To verify credentials
Usually displayed; replace with most
recent verification; keep copy in a
safe place
Medical history
(immunizations, operations, illness,
medications, etc.)
Indefinitely on all family members;
update often
Organizational memberships
Until membership is dropped
Record of important papers
Indefinitely; update as needed
(titles with order and renewal dates; membership details)
Until subscription expires; handle
complaints or cancellations
Property Records
Easements, mineral and surface leases 
Proof of payment
Guarantees and warranties
For proof of date of purchase; to determine service and parts
Until no longer valid
Household inventories
(record item, cost and date of purchase or sale; take digital photographs of rooms and items)
Proof of payment for insurance claims to establish values; net worth statements; Pictures of items are helpful when making claims
Indefinitely; keep list up to date as you dispose of or add household items; make a copy for safe deposit box
Owner manuals
(for appliances and other equipment)
For reference on use and care/repair, warranties, guarantees
Until sold or discarded
(pedigree, health and license records)
Until pet dies or someone else
becomes owner
(certificate of title and bills of sale)
Essential for transfer to new owner when vehicle is sold or traded
Until vehicle is sold
Financial Records
Account books
(goals, spending plan, record of
income and expenses, savings)
For reference and comparison; used to determine net worth and make changes in income and spending patterns
Personal choice; shows saving
accumulation over multiple years
Checking accounts
(number, location, and photocopy pages of checks; electronic transfer card (EFT))
List all account numbers with addresses, phone numbers; save
payment records needed for income tax deductions and proof of important payments
Minimum of at least six years
Credit and debit card information
(names, addresses and phone numbers
of issuing companies; card numbers;
photocopy front and back of all cards)
Purchase of items on credit; use of card and payment of balances due can help aid in getting a higher credit score
If card is not in current use, destroy
and cancel by writing to credit card
company; if lost or stolen, notify
company immediately by phone
Financial institution monthly statements
Evidence of collectible or payable debts; status for estate settlement
Until estate is settled
Household inventory
(include warranties, description of item, date purchased, and purchase price)
Reference for completed transactions; deposits and withdrawals
Keep account locations and numbers in
safe deposit box; minimum of a year
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,
which is typically three years after the
due date for filing your return for the tax year in which the property was sold
Income tax returns
(federal and state 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 a fraudulent return
was filed
(copies of mutual funds, stocks, bonds, real estate, etc.)
Statement of earnings and transactions as reference information
Keep initial and current investment
quarterly statements
Receipts and paid 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
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
Safe deposit box inventory
Information for family members 
Revise list annually
Legal Records
Durable Power of Attorney for Finances
(specify the extent of power delegated to one or more persons: and for financial decisions)
Gives others the power to make financial decisions when you are no longer able to make decisions on your own
Replace with latest version if changes
are made
Durable Power of Attorney for
Health Dare
Gives others the power to make health care decisions when you are no longer able to make decisions on your own
Keep until updated
Living will, called declaration
(original with additional copies made for individuals you want to be aware of your end-of-life wishes)
For reference specifying your end-oflife 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 provide most recent copy if changes are made; store in Montana End-of-Life Registry, 
Personal representative; guardian and conservator appointments
For official notification of agent to settle estate and provide care for minor children and manage their finances
Until official duties are completed
Social Security Card
Needed to apply for benefits; identification number needed on many types of applications and records
Indefinitely, do not carry in your wallet/
purse because your identity could be
stolen with your wallet/purse
Written will and/or trust (copies);
separate listing of tangible personal
property; Letter of Last Instruction
Unsigned copy of will for home reference
Update when written will or trust is
Safe deposit box inventory
Information for family members
Revise list annually


Auto insurance card To identify issuer in case of accident
Credit and/or electronic banking cards To pay for or charge purchases; to make other transactions
Doctor preferred Notification in case of emergency
Donor card
(may also be on driver’s license)
To donate body organs and to donate body to medical school or
training program for use in medical education or research. For
further information, see the MSU Extension MontGuide, Montana
Body Donation Program: A Potential Component of an Estate Plan
Driver’s license 
Identification and evidence of legal eligibility to drive
Health insurance card
(Medicare and/or other)
Identification to use at doctor’s office and/or during hospital admittance
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
Personal identification
(name, address, and phone number for yourself and friend or relative contact)
Identification, especially in case of emergency


Grab-n-Go Emergency Bucket, Box, or Backpack

Because an emergency can arise quickly and there is not enough time before a family is ordered to evacuate, they can put together a “Grab-n-Go” Emergency Bucket or Tote/Backpack. This emergency pack can contain copies of important papers to quickly take without thinking and trying to find: Credit and banking information, driver’s license, birth certificates, insurance information including auto, health, medical, and home, any important medical information such as medication and immunization records, household inventory list of usernames and passwords for accounts accessed on the Web, extra set of keys to vehicles, home, safety deposit box or safe, and enough cash to purchase fuel for vehicle, food, and lodging for several days.



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Marsha Goetting Ph.D., CFP®, CFCS

MSU Extension Family Economics Specialist
Montana State University
Extension Economics
P.O. Box 172800
Bozeman, MT 59717-2800
Tel: (406) 994-5695
Location: 208C Linfield Hall

Email Marsha