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Michelle Singletary, "Big Mama used to say it's not how much money you make that matters, but how you make do with what you have"

Questions & Answers

Disaster Preparation

Question:

How are my financial records (bank account, checking account, saving account) protected in a tragedy like New Orleans? Where are the backup records stored? How do the people of New Orleans get access to the bank account and money? How does one pay bills and creditors in New Orleans?

Answer:

Hopefully, your bank, investment company, credit card company, etc. will have backups. However, the best situation is if you have backups somewhere safe. Specifically, copies of wills, power of attorney, health care power of attorney, living will, burial instructions and trust documents should be kept not only at home, but also in a safe deposit box and with an attorney and/or anyone named as able to act on your behalf. Someone should also have the instructions about the location of the safe deposit box. Other financial documents that need to be copied so that copies can be sent to attorney relative or friend or placed in safe deposit box include deeds to home, titles to cars, receipts and photos of property, other legal documents. Finally, everyone should make lists of insurance policies, investments, property, trusts, personal property, prescription drugs, names of doctors, employee benefits, bank etc.

Question:

My husband, young son, and I live in an apartment (on the first floor). I mention this because though it's a decent complex, I feel it's not as secure as a house. I have renters insurance and I have a safety deposit box at the bank. In your column you mentioned keeping important documents in a fireproof box at home. I have all my documents at the bank, and copies of documents like my passport and insurance policies at home. My dad says that's unnecessary. I guess I'm thinking a break-in is more likely than a natural disaster. Please advise.

Answer:

A safe deposit box is probably safer than at home. However, it is easier to keep some documents at home for easy access. Other documents, like tax documents are too voluminous to keep in a safe deposit box. That is when home storage is the only choice.

Question:

I have a question about savings in case of a disaster. Are local banks with limited branches more vulnerable than big national banks? I ask because I have a local bank and if there is a flood does it make a difference on how I can access money? Oh and how much in savings should one have in case of disaster?

Answer:

This is such a great question. And I'm not sure I know the answer. So you should contact your bank and find out. But you make a good point that if you bank at an institution with limited branches and that bank is shut down because of a disaster needs to have a system in place to help customers get to their money. But with online banking and telephone banking I'm sure even smaller institutions can handle such things in a crisis. And the question is how much CASH should you have on hand. I remember in Maryland and DC many ATM networks were knocked out because we lost power for a couple of days and folks couldn't get cash to even to the grocery store. So I would recommend having enough cash to buy gas and food for a couple of days. Although with the gas prices going up so much that might mean having a mint in your house :)

Question:

I know this is sort of a morbid question, but I believe it is relevant to this discussion. When storing all of your important documents (in a safe deposit or fire box) do you think it is important to supply (and clearly label) samples of each family members DNA in case it is needed after a disaster?

Answer:

That's an interesting question. I just heard a news report that suggest parents should swab the inside of the mouths of their kids and store that Q-tip in the freezer in case they get separated from their small children.

Question:

What personal documentation should you include in your must have 'get away' bag. I am assuming a 'get away' bag would be pre-assembled (pre-emergency) and separate from your normal record filing system. Would duplicates or copies of the documents be accepted in most cases?

Answer:

Unfortunately, you need to take a lot with you if you have not already sent copies to someone else. Relevant documents include:

  • birth, death, marriage certificates;
  • divorce decrees with all relevant settlement information wills, trusts and any power of attorney information;
  • advanced healthcare directives;
  • adoption papers;
  • any identification numbers, including drivers' license, passport and employee identification data;
  • current bank and brokerage statements;
  • recent medical records that may be good to have on hand if incapacitated;
  • copies of residential deeds and mortgage data;
  • car title, lease, loan information and license plate data;
  • all insurance policies (health, long-term care, auto, homeowners, disability and life) and agent contact information;
  • knowledge of where safe-deposit, lockbox and filing cabinet keys are;
  • recent pay stubs;
  • income tax returns for the last three years;
  • all relevant contact numbers for executors, financial advisers, trustees, guardians, attorneys and any other pertinent individuals;

Unless otherwise noted the questions were answered by me in recent online discussions on www.washingtonpost.com.