Bare Bones Legal and Financial Documents: a Checklist for Physicians

November 5, 2013

A list of the most essential legal and financial paperwork a physician should easily be able to retrieve in the event of an emergency.

Finding key documents can be trying and laborious under the best circumstances, even with plenty of notice, like at tax time every year. Finding them under stress or worse, having to have someone else sort through the entirety of the paperwork you have hoarded after an emergency, death, or other crisis is often impossible. This is the list of the most essential legal and financial paperwork that you should be able to lay hands on or instruct others to easily find.

The bare-bare bones documents everyone should have available include:

1. Passports. Make sure they are current and useable. If your kid is taking a summer abroad and gets hurt, it will certainly be the wrong time to discover that your passport is expired (true story) and that you have to wait for the government to reopen and for your passport to be processed.

2. Copies of other identification. Driver’s license, social security card, or other legal forms of ID including a birth certificate that is often required to obtain other documents.

3. Insurance policies. Life, property, liability, and health are four most basic key areas, we’ve covered many more in previous articles. I’d hate to go on what Allstate (or any carrier) felt like paying me on my homeowner’s policy on good faith alone if my home was damaged or lost in a flood or hurricane. Having a copy of these actual policies is key to demanding service, coverage, and in enforcing the actual contract if required. Similarly, health insurance cards are often kept in places that can be lost or stolen, like wallets and purses - if you’ve ever sat in an emergency room and seen who gets treated first and how well, you’ll get this.

4. Essential corporate and business documents including bank statements. If you have corporate documents that control chain of command, ownership, title, account balances, and succession, you better know where they are. I am continually amazed that how many doctors don’t have copies of their corporate documents, adding stress, delay, and expense when they are needed, as in a lawsuit between partners in a medical practice. In that case, you may be stuck with copies that may or may not be accurate.

5. Mortgages and deeds. These are perhaps the most overlooked, lost, and disrespected documents we come across. Odd since it is the single largest asset of many doctors.

6. Medical records and prescriptions. This is the most subjective, but if you or a family member have a complex medical history or require prescription drugs to function at a basic level having copies of the prescriptions at issue is essential, especially during emergencies.

7. Estate plan. We assume you have one, whether a basic will or a more sophisticated series of trusts of various types and that you’ve updated it and that you have avoided common mistakes. It does no good if we can’t find it and don’t know who’s in charge.

How and where should they be stored?

The conventional wisdom, and likely the safest bet, is the bank in a safety deposit box. That said, it may be impractical or subject you to delays based on their hours and a variety of other conditions including the substantial limits on access by third-party agents you may want to have possession. Would the person you send be able to get into the box, including your own children?

Home and office storage. Invest in a safe that is both waterproof and fire rated to withstand most common house fires. “Too big” or “too expensive” is not a valid excuse for almost anyone reading this. Costco, as one example, has large fire-rated safes that will hold guns, laptops, jewelry, and documents for as little as $600; entry-level small safes are a fraction of that cost.

Consider which documents are sufficient if you have a copy, like an insurance policy, and which require originals, like a passport. All my personal clients from this month forward will receive copies of their documents, instructions, filings, and signature pages on an encrypted "key drive" to help in this process. That drive also allows other documents to be added to it and is encrypted to a high-security level. Don’t make electronic copies the primary source; it limits you to times when you have power and computer/Internet access, a significant variable for folks in a natural disaster, as one example.