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Top 10 Vital Documents--Do You Know Where Your VIPs Are?

As a Certified Professional Organizer, I find it's a common occurrence to be sorting through piles of papers and then find a real gem, a VIP or Very Important Paper.  When this happens, the client invariably shrieks with delight ("Oh, I've been looking for that for months!") or dismay ("Oh, I was looking for that for months and ended up spending lots of money to replace it.")

Today, we're going to review the Top 10 VIPs you should (or may) have:

1)   Birth Certificate

In theory, you should already have a birth certificate--you were born. You need one to get a driver's license, apply for Social Security, obtain a passport, to prove that yes, you really do qualify to be President of the United States. Usually, a photocopy will not suffice, as an embossed certificate, stamped by your county of birth's ruling authority will be required.

If you have multiple embossed certificates, keep one in your safe deposit box or fireproof safe, and any other copies in the VIP folder of the Legal section of your Family Files.

Have you searched hither and yon and can't find your birth certificate? Was it was eaten by the dog after he tired of munching on homework? Get a replacement with minimal-to-moderate effort and expense:

Do-It-Yourselfer?  The state in which you were born maintains master copies. Contact your state's Office of Vital Records in writing. To get the contact information, fee schedule (for certificate and additional copies, plus processing and postal costs), and required submission information, select your state from the Center for Disease Control & Prevention's "Where to Write for Vital Records" page.  (Canadian readers, choose your province from ServiceCanada.com's birth certificate page.)

Be prepared to provide identifying details, including your full name at birth, date of birth, sex, county or city of birth, hospital name, your mom's full (maiden) name and your dad's complete name. You'll also have to supply your signature (possibly notarized, depending on your state's requirements), your mailing address and your phone number.

In-a-Rush?  If you're pressed for time, there are services that will obtain your birth certificate on an expedited basis, for an additional charge. You'll be able to fax the requested information and proof of identification to them, along with your credit card authorization. The best known of these services are Vitalchek and NationalBirthCertificate.com.

Born Elsewhere?  If you were born abroad, you can apply for a Certified Copy of a Consular Birth Abroad.

2)   Social Security Card

Yes, it's possible Social Security won't be around by the time you retire. But until then, you need proof of your registration with the Social Security Administration in order to get a job, accrue benefits, and receive certain government services.

You should already have your Social Security card.  If you don't, complete an SS-5 application at the Social Security Administration's website and then mail it to your local Social Security office. You'll need to include proof of citizenship or immigration status, age and identity. Click here to determine what types of documentation you need.

Can't find your card and you've looked everywhere?  You can get a replacement for free, but they're limited to three replacements per year and ten in your lifetime. Just fill out the SS-5 application, as noted above. (Questions #10-12 apply to replacing cards for pre-existing SS numbers.) 

As discussed in the posts on identity theft, don't carry your Social Security card around with you. Take it out of your wallet! Unless you've been informed that you'll need to supply your actual card (i.e., if you're meeting with Human Resources after securing a job), keep your card in a safe place and guard it as if it were a One Million Dollar bill.

3)   Marriage Certificate

Every state requires that you have a marriage license and resulting certificate to qualify your marital status as legal. If you've just been married for 6 hours and your passport has your old name but your fiancÚ booked your honeymoon flights in your new name, you're going to need to convince the airlines, and possibly the TSA.  If your name differs from your spouse, proving your marital right to visit in the hospital with be a toughie without documentation. Insurance companies might require a copy of the certificate to provide spousal coverage, and Big Brother might need proof of the marriage for everything from military housing to pension and benefit collection to adoption and travel abroad.

If you're getting married, MarriageLicense.com can tell you what you need and how to proceed to get the license and certificate for your locale.  If you're already married, but you trusted your spouse to file the certificate safely away, and your spouse trusted you to do the same (great trust levels, not-so-great organizational skills?), you can use the same CDC link provided for birth certificates (above) to identify your state's office of vital records and the requirements for requesting copies.

4)   Divorce Decree

Certified copies of divorce decrees are necessary if you wish to remarry, provide proof of legally separate finances to a tax authority or creditor, and to participate on some of those ridiculous reality dating shows.

If you've lost your divorce decree paperwork and live in or near the county in which the divorce was granted, the speediest method will be to arrive at the county courthouse with the following information in hand:  the full name of husband and wife, including the wife's maiden name, the court case number, the date of the divorce and the city and state where the divorce took place.  If you don't have the court case number, call the attorney(s) and or mediator who handled your divorce to see if their records include the case file number. With this information, you'll be able to fill out an official request form at the courthouse.

If you no longer live in or near the county in which the divorce occurred, follow the CDC link for the state in which the divorce took place, and follow your individual locale's instructions.

5)   Military Separation/Discharge Papers and Other Military Records

You'll need your own military records and separation/discharge papers to obtain a job or a security clearance, get proof or copies of medals, or apply for medical or disability benefits. If a loved one who formerly served has died, you'll need certified copies of records to arrange a military funeral and obtain certain insurance benefits.

An original signature of the veteran (or his/her next of kin) is required to fill requests for copies of Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF).  To a get a free copy of your (or your relative's) Report of Separation (DD Form 214) or other military records, start with the electronic search/request system eVetRecs, or mail (or fax) a standard form SF-180 to the National Personnel Records Center.

6)   Death certificate

You'll need multiple certified embossed copies of a loved one's death certificate for everything from closing an estate to transferring car titles to notifying financial institutions regarding debts, transfers of ownership to beneficiaries and other legal, financial, and real estate transactions. If the death was recent, you might confer with the coroner or nursing home regarding expedited procedures. Otherwise, as with birth and marriage certificates, selecting your state from the CDC listings for your Office of Vital Records is your best bet.

7)   Durable Power of Attorney for Finances
8)   Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare

  • The Basics
A Power of Attorney is a written document authorizing someone to make legal and/or financial decisions on your behalf. For example, let's say you win the lottery, buy a ticket for a trip around the world (perhaps to visit George Clooney's Italian villa), and grant someone Power of Attorney to make sure that the remaining lottery winnings, safely invested, are being overseen if the stock market starts to do some scary things.
  • Durable
Are you wondering if plain-old, non-durable Powers of Attorney wears out after too much usage? With a garden variety PoA, if something happens and you become incapacitated (let's say you fell out of a hot air balloon while hovering over George's villa and get a booboo in your brain), that incapacitation nullifies the PoA. Conversely, a durable PoA stays in effect even when you're incapacitated so that you can be sure someone you trust is looking out for your best interests.
  • Finances
A durable PoA for financial matters is just that--a document stating whom you've authorized to handle your money decisions and activities.
  • Healthcare
A durable PoA for health care (also called a health-care proxy, medical proxy or a medical power of attorney) is a document stating whom you've authorized to make your medical decisions if you are physically and/or mentally unable to do so. Married people usually authorize their spouses, but you can authorize a sibling, parent or non-relative, too. 

Authorize a Durable Power of Attorney for Finance and/or Healthcare by filling out (or copying) forms (downloadable from various sites for free or small charges), including those at Free-Legal-Documents.com or DocStoc and review these tips for drafting your own durable PoA for finances.  Be sure to have your durable PoA witnessed and notarized, as required by your state.

9)   Living Will or Advanced Medical Directive

A living will is a document that exists to provide guidance to physicians regarding what types of treatments you're willing to undergo, what pain management techniques are acceptable to you, etc. 

Some people wonder why, if they have a living will, they need a durable power of attorney for health care, too. Good question! Only someone authorized by a durable PoA can make decisions about if, and under what circumstances, life support might be withdrawn. The assumption is that if you're incapacitated and have not authorized someone to make your medical decisions, then your doctor will, defacto, be in charge.  However, the authority to make your health care decisions shifts from the doctor, to whomever you've authorized (via the durable PoA for health care document), once the doctor makes the medical determination that you've been incapacitated--if you're altered, delirious, comatose, etc.

A living will or advanced medical directive can't foresee future circumstances; the person authorized by a durable PoA for healthcare can make sure your most recent wishes are followed. Of course, you'll want to tell the person whom you've authorized what your wishes are. For example, you might wish to be kept on life support no matter the circumstances. My mother calls this the "I want to be a burden to my children" option.  Or, you might wish to be receive life-sustaining treatment unless a certain circumstance arises, such as a prolonged vegetative state. Or, you might wish for all life support to be withdrawn unless there's hope for full (or vastly increased) restoration of mental and physical health.

You can pick up a blank living will or advanced health care directive at most hospitals, or download a form designated for your state at a variety of sites (Google "medical directive" or "living will"), including PublicLegal.

10) Passport

Does the thought of corralling all of these vital documents stress you out?  Maybe a nice vacation would help? Well, you won't get far from our borders without a valid passport. 

To apply for a new one, pick up a passport application at your local post office or download form DS-11 and read the general instructions at the Department of State web site. If your passport is lost or stolen, fill out a DS-64 and submit it, along with a DS-11, to get a replacement.

Now, with all this straightened out, don't you feel like a VIP?

posted on: 7/21/2009 10:30:00 AM by Julie Bestry
category: Paper

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Discuss This Post

by Jacki Hollywood Brown on 7/21/2009 11:25:46 AM:

Other important VIPs include: Certificate of Baptism (or other religious equivalent) - In some cases may be required to register in schools or apply to be married in a specific house of worship. Immigration/Citizenship Documents - These have the same value as birth certificates & passports. Documents regarding criminal history - if you've ever been in prison or been exonerated of a crime you'll need these documents! These have the same importance as military records.

by Julie Bestry (Paper Doll) on 7/21/2009 12:16:05 PM:

Very true, Jacki. Since www.OnlineOrganizing.com limits the number of characters in any post (and HTML code counts as a character), I was limited to a top 10 that almost everyone has (with the possible exceptions of 4 and 5, and with half of all marriages ending in divorce, 4 is quite a likelihood). We'll be exploring other VIPs in the future. Thanks!

by Jeri Dansky on 7/23/2009 3:04:15 AM:

I realize you were limited in space - but I've got to add a plug for a will (and, in many cases, a trust) as VIP #11. If you're over 18 and own stuff, it's good to have a will. And I found working with a good estate attorney led to a much better Advanced Medical Directive than doing it on my own, using blank forms. The attorney asked about all sorts of things I might want to include, that I hadn't ever thought of. Now my directive is much more comprehensive.

by Julie Bestry (Paper Doll) on 7/23/2009 11:31:38 AM:

You're so right, Jeri, and this will be the subject of an upcoming post. However, these were all papers people have, or could obtain or replace, inexpensively, without the involvement of attorneys. Thanks for your input!

by Janet Barclay on 7/25/2009 12:44:26 PM:

It's been a while, so I can't remember for sure, but I think you also provide #3 before you can proceed with obtaining a #4.

by Janet Barclay on 7/25/2009 12:45:15 PM:

Oops - meant to say: I think you also must provide #3 before you can proceed with obtaining a #4.

by Julie Bestry (Paper Doll) on 7/25/2009 1:35:34 PM:

LOL. If you're saying you must marry before you can divorce, then that's indeed true. :-) If you mean you need to supply your marriage certificate in order to acquire a certified copy of your divorce decree, no, that's not necessarily true. Depending on the county in which the divorce was granted, you may only need the info I indicated above, including your case number, plus proof of identity. Obviously, it may/will be different in other nations (like yours!).

by need coupons for groceries on 7/26/2009 11:42:51 AM:

Thank you very much for this nice blog post.

by Janet Barclay on 8/19/2009 4:53:40 PM:

I think I meant you need to supply your marriage certificate before you can start divorce proceedings... just being difficult, of course ;-)

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Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles

by Julie Bestry

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Julie Bestry, President of Best Results Organizing in Chattanooga, TN, is a Certified Professional Organizer®, speaker and author. Julie helps overwhelmed individuals and businesses save time and money, reduce stress and increase productivity through new organizational skills and systems.

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