Safeguarding your family papers can save you trouble

Eager to settle into your new house, you throw your tax records and deeds into the nearest closet, not knowing they land on a half-open can of enamel.

Thirty years later, when it comes time to retrieve the papers for tax and estate purposes, they look more like a series of finger paintings than financial records.

The moral: Personal and family papers are vital. Losing or misplacing them can cause troublesome - and costly - delays when they are needed.

Nonetheless, according to the Social Security Administration, attorneys, court officials, and others who deal with documents, many Americans are careless when it comes to safeguarding their records.

Many put them away carefully, somewhere, but then forget where. Or, perhaps, they leave them someplace where in time the records simply get lost. It is a common problem and one that often delays the completion of applications for social-security, income-tax, and other programs.

The solution is to recognize what to keep and what to throw away and to develop a simple filing system so they are accessible when needed. Keeping too much can produce a truck-size clutter problem. Keeping too little leads to problems as well.

The federal government has a free, useful guide to sorting through your paper load. It is Bulletin 625E, ''Keeping Records - What to Discard.'' Put together in 1974, it suggests which household and family records should be kept. It can be ordered by number and title from the US Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, Colo., 81009.

Meanwhile, those approaching retirement should make sure they can put hands on birth certificates, proof of marriage, and the previous year's income-tax return. People who have been divorced should also have appropriate divorce papers in their files.

Birth certificates for children should be accessible. When leaving home, children should be given either the original or a duplicate of their certificates. Another copy should be kept in the home file.

Files should also include tax records; mortgages and deeds; car papers; insurance policies; records of loans, repayments, and investments; and an inventory of household furniture, fixtures, and goods. There should also be an appraisal of jewelry, antiques, art, and similar possessions.

It is also a good idea to keep warranties, guarantees, and purchase records for appliances, expensive shop and yard equipment, and other major items. If something goes wrong in the warranty period, the documents will be needed to get an adjustment.

The problem is not only what to keep, but where to file it. It does not have to be a desk drawer or a filing cabinet. Generally, records can be squirreled away in something as simple as a Manila folder (the large accordion type is best) or in a small box that can be stowed away in a drawer or closet.

Permanent filing, for documents likely to be important for a lifetime, should be maintained in a secure file. This may require a small investment in a fireproof metal box.

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