File It Easy, Find It Fast:
What to File, Where, and For How Long

This guide, one of a three-part series, helps you build an active and inactive filing system for important papers and records.

Kathy Prochaska-Cue, Extension Family Economist
Nancy G. Frecks, Associate Extension Educator
Leanne M. Manning, Extension Educator
Sandra D. Preston, Extension Educator

Figure 1. A file cabinet is just one place to keep important papers.
Figure 1. A file cabinet is just one place to keep important papers.

Papers and records are kept in four places: in a home filing system, in a safe deposit box, in wallets of household members, and in Nebraska, in each vehicle owned (Figure 1). An accountant, attorney, business consultant or other tax specialist can give you specific advice about which records you need to keep and for how long depending on your situation.

What to File, Where, and For How Long

A home filing system consisting of two parts, Active files and Inactive files, is explained in detail in NebGuide 1929, File It Easy, Find It Fast: Setup Suggestions for Home Filing Systems. Using this filing system, let’s look at where important papers and records should be filed and for how long.

Active Filing System How Long to Keep in this Folder
Fast Action Files

Index to file system

Permanently (update as needed)

In process financial business

Until completed

Bills to be paid

Until paid

Papers to be filed

Until filed

Safe deposit box

Permanently (update as needed)
Alphabetical Active Files
Cashflow budget Current year only
Checkbook and checking account including current cancelled checks Current year only
Credit cards (infrequently used and charge accounts) Current year only
Current receipts Current year only
Contracts, debts, and leases Current year only
Education records Permanently (update as needed)
Employment benefits Permanently (update as needed)
Employment records Permanently (update as needed)
Financial planning (goals, net worth statements, etc.) Permanently (update as needed)
Health records Permanently (update as needed)
Home (current home improvements, ownership papers, lease agreement) Current only
Household inventory (duplicate) Permanently (update as needed)
Household management (warranties, care information, instruction books) Currently owned only
Insurance policies, agent contact information, claim records Current only
Keys (labeled duplicates) Current only
Lists (addresses, phone numbers, holiday cards, birthday, financial advisors, Social Security cards, passwords, PIN numbers) Permanent (update as needed)
Memberships Current only
Military service Permanent (update as needed)
Organization (information and cards not carried in wallet) Current only
Pets Current only
Retirement plans and investments Permanent (update as needed)
Savings and investments Current only
Taxes Current year only
Wills and estate planning (Unsigned wills, letter of last instruction, advanced directives, burial lot information) Permanent (update as needed)
Inactive Filing System
Home improvements As long as needed for tax purposes
Investments As long as needed for tax purposes
Loans and debts As long as needed for tax purposes
Personal papers As long as needed for tax purposes
Real estate As long as needed for tax purposes
Taxes Keep all tax supporting material for at least six years; keep all returns, schedules, W-2s and 1099s indefinitely

Besides a home filing system, important papers and records are also kept in a safe deposit box, carried in a wallet, and, in Nebraska, carried in each vehicle.

  How Long to Keep
Safe Deposit Box
Certificates of ownership, investments, titles, deeds, retirement program, homeownership papers (update as needed) As long as owned or longer if needed for tax purposes
Household inventory, supporting evidence such as receipts, photographs, bills of sale, appraisals Permanent (update as needed)
Important cancelled checks for tax and insurance purposes As needed for tax purposes
Important contracts As needed for tax purposes
Jewelry, other valuables such as stamp and coin collections As long as owned
Lists: financial advisors, insurance policies, credit cards, credit accounts, investments, location of important papers Permanently
Patents and copyrights As long as owned
Personal records: adoption, citizenship, baptism, birth certificates, death certificates, dissolution papers, education diplomas, transcripts and certificates, marriage certificates, military service discharge papers, passports, professional licenses, Social Security card stubs Permanently
Signed copy of each person’s will and plan for disposal of personal property In safe deposit box if jointly owned; if not, in a fireproof safe at home, with the attorney, or at the county courthouse
Carry in Wallet
Blood type card/organ donor card Permanent
Credit cards, frequently used Current only
Driver’s license, identification card Current only
Emergency health conditions card Permanent (update as needed)
Health/accident insurance, Medicare card Current only
Names: people to notify in an emergency, doctor and hospital preferred Permanent (update as needed)
Necessary organization card(s) Current only
Carry in Each Vehicle Owned
Auto insurance card, registration (if required by state law) Current only

Why a Safe Deposit Box is Important

An invaluable backup to the home filing system is the safe deposit box. Papers that would be difficult or impossible to replace are kept here. Some documents must be available to you even if your home is burglarized or burns down. Papers such as birth and marriage certificates as well as valuable items or collections like jewelry and stamp collections may be kept there. If you have valuable items that might endanger the lives or safety of those living in the home, perhaps they are best stored off the premises.

There are liability limits for financial institutions with safe deposit boxes, but claims are extremely rare. Insurance is available but can be rather expensive. On the other hand, if these items are kept at home, homeowner’s or renter’s insurance for the same items probably will be even more expensive.

Jointly owned safe deposit boxes are accessible to surviving joint owners. For this reason, the signed copy of a will and preference for disposal of personal property may be kept in a jointly owned safe deposit box.

Where to Find Copies of Misplaced Records

Some records — birth, death, marriage, divorce, and military — are not usually needed often during life, but when you do need them it’s generally best to have copies close at hand. All requests for copies of records must be made in writing and must include any appropriate fees.

Birth record. Write to the bureau of vital statistics, state health department, or similar state agency in the capital city of the state of birth. Include full name of child, date and place of birth, parents’names (including the child’s mother’s maiden name), the reason for the request, and your relationship to the person named. A fee for the certificate is usually charged.

Death record. For a record of death, contact the vital records agency in the state where death occurred. Include the deceased’s name, the place and date of death, purpose for your request and your relationship to the deceased. If it is a recent death, the deceased’s Social Security number or spouse’s name will be helpful, especially if the deceased had a fairly common name. A fee is usually charged for this record.

Marriage certificate. Write to the state agency in the state where the marriage was performed. Include the bride’s maiden name, groom’s name, place and date of marriage, county where the license was issued, your reason for the request, and your relationship to the couple. A fee is usually charged. If the marriage was performed in a county different from the county issuing the marriage license, say in which county the marriage license was obtained.

Dissolution of marriage or divorce. For records of marriage dissolutions, write to the vital records agency in the state where the dissolution or divorce was obtained. Include the names of both people, date and county where dissolution or divorce was granted, why the record is being requested, and your relationship to the parties involved. A fee is usually charged.

Nebraska contact information for Nebraska records of birth, death, marriage, or dissolution of marriage. Contact the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services Office of Vital Records, 1033 “O” St., Suite 130, Lincoln NE 68509-0965, (402) 471-2871, or email Vitalrecords@dhhs.ne.gov or http://www.hhs.state.ne.us/VitalRecords/. All applications must have a photocopy of a government-issued identification of the person making the application, such as a driver’s license. The fee is $12 for birth certificates and $11 for death, marriage, divorce, and/or dissolution of marriage certificates.

Military records. To request military records, write to the Department of Defense, Military Personnel Records Center, 9700 Page Blvd., St Louis, MO 63100. Include the full name, service or Social Security number, service branch, date of birth, and dates of active service. Fees generally are not charged for replacement of military records.

A well-organized filing system will be a workable system that will save time, effort and money in the future.

This publication has been peer reviewed.

Visit the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Extension Publications Web site for more publications.
Index: Financial Management
Budgets and Record Keeping
Issued January 2009

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