I Fought the Law…and the Paperwork Won!

Posted on: November 27th, 2007 by Julie Bestry | No Comments

A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

~Samuel Goldwyn

Before Thanksgiving, we talked about the first category in the family/personal file system. With FINANCIAL items out of the way, we can move on to the next important category: LEGAL.


If you had a fender bender over Thanksgiving weekend, would you have known where to find your insurance policy? If your nephew taunted your daughter that she was left on the doorstep by elves and not really yours, could you smooth her worries by pulling out her birth certificate?

While we tend to deal with financial paperwork on a daily basis, occasional mislaid LEGAL paperwork causes the greatest panic. To keep things running smoothly, break your legal papers down into some basic subcategories:

A. VIPs (Very Important Papers) generally prove you are you who you say you are. In most cases, keep the originals in a safe deposit box, or failing that, a fireproof safe, and maintain photocopies in your family/personal files. Each person in the family should have a VIP folder, including:

  • Birth certificates – prove identity and age
  • Adoption records – prove identity and age
  • Marriage certificates –prove identity in order to collect insurance and benefits (like Social Security and veterans’ pensions)
  • Divorce decrees – prove you qualify for remarriage
  • Military records –prove qualifications to collect medical, education, and other benefits
  • Citizenship/Naturalization papers – prove you qualify to vote and hold certain jobs and elected offices
  • Death certificates – to collect benefits and settle estates
  • Passports – to prove identity for travel
  • Social Security cards – to qualify for benefits

Guard your Social Security card/number as if it were worth millions of dollars; identity theft is pernicious, and the value of safeguarding your SSN is incalculable.

B. Estate/End of Life Papers
People often skip this category, either because it’s dismal or they feel they don’t have enough assets to be concerned. However, you don’t need to qualify for Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous to take care of your estate documents. As with the VIPs, most of these will be kept in your safe deposit box (or on file with your attorney or the county in which you live), but keep photocopies of the following in your files:

I am not a lawyer, and even if I played one on television, I am not YOUR lawyer. However, in general, a “power of attorney” authorizes someone to make legal and financial decisions on your behalf while you are alive but unable to act (say, if you are out of the country or otherwise unreachable because you’re trapped in the Big Brother house); if you are incapacitated due to illness or injury, only a “DURABLE Power of Attorney” allows someone to make your essential decisions.

C. Titles of Ownership
If you go to the effort and expense of purchasing something, make sure you can prove it’s yours. There are some obvious sub-categories:

  • Real estate—Keep copies of the deeds and mortgage paperwork for any house, building or piece of land (including private island getaway). Note the exact transaction date of purchase/sale, the gross price and the cost of any legal fees. You’ll need this data for tax prep when you eventually sell any property. Keep track of easements and liens here, as well. Keep a separate folder for each piece of property you own.
  • Automobile—maintain the title in a folder for each auto you own
  • Boat/Airplane title (and bill of sale)—again, keep a folder for each

In other words, if you own something big enough to live on (or in) or pilot from one place to another, be sure you can prove it’s yours.

Note: your property insurance policy will go under the Insurance subcategory (below) and receipts for payments on mortgages will go in the FINANCIAL section, as we’ve already discussed.

D. Contracts
Do you recall the recent hubbub when Ellen DeGeneres failed to read the details of her dog adoption contract? Yikes! Make sure you have any legally-binding contracts carefully filed so you can review the details. Remember employment contracts and other agreements for services to be rendered, as well as promissory notes (for loans to or from you). If you’re in your twenties, you may not have any/many such papers, but as your contract file grows, you’ll want a separate file for each.

E. Insurance policies
Although your insurance agent (whose phone number should be programmed into your cell phone) can look up your coverage, you should maintain a copy of all policies, including:

  • Health insurance (medical, dental, vision, other specific policies)
  • Homeowner’s insurance
  • Renter’s insurance
  • Auto/Boat/Plane insurance
  • Miscellaneous property policies
  • Umbrella policies

Keep your policies filed, be sure to have your most current health insurance card in your wallet, and proof of auto insurance in your glove compartment. (The latter is the law in many states.)

Depending on your personal background, you may have other important legal dealings. For example:

F. Department of Motor Vehicles
For the average law-abiding citizen, the DMV folder may just hold some handy photo-copies of your driver’s license and auto registration. But I have a few clients who have been known to exceed the speed limit or have had some run-ins with the boys in blue regarding parking or traffic infractions. Keeping a file for these legal wranglings (including tickets, summonses, proof of attendance at traffic court and traffic school, etc.) can help with insurance and legal issues down the road.

G. Divorce or Custody Proceedings
Family court issues are never fun, but frustration can be lessened by keeping the paperwork easily accessible. One of my clients had some disagreements with her ex-husband about certain custody arrangements and had to get the authorities involved. Being able to quickly lay hands on her paperwork gave her the edge in resolving the situation. File divorce and custody paperwork in reverse chronological order.

H. Depositions and Testimony
You may have been an expert (or other kind of) witness, providing testimony or giving depositions. If the case is ongoing or is in the appeals process, you will want to maintain a record of your prior statements.

Every family’s legal situation is unique — if your family has a unique legal issue, create a new hanging folder and interior folders and label them accordingly. Basically, if it’s a legal document or about a legal situation, either the original or the photocopy (if the original is kept by your attorney, county or in your safe deposit box) belongs in the LEGAL section of your files. However, if it’s a financial item (insurance premium, legal bill, alimony payment record, etc.), even one related to legal categories, it belongs in the financial section.

Next time: Medical Files

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