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Preparation is key to surviving disasters of all kinds: Financial experts offer tips to keep your records safe in emergencies

September 25, 2006

Last year's hurricane disasters in the Gulf Coast region brought to light how easily and quickly personal financial records can be lost or destroyed in a catastrophe.

While hurricanes aren't likely to hit Indiana, tornadoes, fires and floods are always a possibility, as are crimes such as theft, vandalism and identity theft.

Financial planners emphasize that it's important to keep records safe from various disasters that can hit without warning. In fact, they say, it's good to have a plan to safeguard records against any unexpected event, including death or injury.

The Independent Community Bankers of America suggests the following tips to ensure that tax, financial and other personal documents are protected:

Keep marriage and family records-including adoption papers, property deeds, birth certificates, wills, insurance policies, passports, Social Security cards, immunization records, credit card account numbers, car titles or lease contracts, bank and investment account numbers, and three years of tax returns-in a safe-deposit box.

Make and safeguard official copies of critical documents such as birth certificates, adoption papers, marriage certificates and the deed to your house for safekeeping, perhaps with an attorney.

Inventory and keep a list and photographs of household valuables. Store this list in a fire-proof safe or in a location other than your house.

Start and regularly contribute to an emergency fund that can cover at least three to four months' worth of expenses. This fund should be separate from a savings or investment account.

Stash some extra cash with an emergency kit, which should include a threeday supply of water, food, a first aid kit, can opener, flashlights, radio and extra batteries.

Notify a trustee, close relative or attorney where important financial information is located.

Identify the records that you keep only on a computer. They may not be available if electrical power fails, so make a printout and safeguard them.

Keep names and contact numbers for executors, trustees and guardians in a safe place, possibly in your safe deposit box or with a close relative.

The Internet can serve as a supplement to paper copies. Scanned or other electronic documents can be attached to emails and stored in your e-mail account, or with secure online backup services.

"Many of the suggestions you see out there these days to keep records protected are good whether there's a disaster or not," said Ed Snyder, co-founder of Carmelbased Oaktree Financial Advisors.

Technology has made it easier to preserve records even if the paper ones get destroyed. And gaining access to them is easier than ever.

"Even cell phones these days offer the capability to pull up your accounts," Snyder said.

He said it's true that a separate emergency fund should be created to tide a person over for three or four months, but not one necessarily earmarked for use in the event of a natural disaster.

Such a fund creates a safety net in the event of job loss, divorce or illness that prevents a person from working temporarily, Snyder said.

A thorough insurance review is also needed, said Elaine Bedel, founder of Bedel Financial Consulting Inc. Homeowners, auto, personal and life insurance policies all should be checked to ensure the right coverage is in effect.

It's also important to review those plans at least once a year, Bedel said.

"Often, people do these things, then forget about updating them or checking them," she said. "The kinds of natural disasters that have hit lately remind people to do that."

And not only do individuals need a financial-records backup plan, so do the companies that maintain those records.

Bedel's company has a plan for retrieving client information in the event the office is destroyed or damaged. Her landlord provides a backup location she can move to temporarily that is outside the Indianapolis area. A secondary backup plan involves working out of her home.

"Before, we called them contingency plans," Bedel said "Now, we call them disaster plans, so maybe the stronger name will make people think about their plan more."
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