How important are your documents?

Image: How important are your documents?

One never knows when crisis will hit and you or someone other than yourself will need access to your important documents, but not have the time or ability to search for them.

Be it an unexpected illness, hospitalization or something else - a purse can get stolen or lost, a home can get broken into....

We relish planning for the future when it's a joyous event we have to look forward to. We are more than likely to avoid planning for a possible crisis or a negative event. I have heard repeatedly how people are reluctant to discuss the issue of preparing Wills or Powers of Attorney with their loved ones - some people talk about a fear of discussing it because they are superstitious; they believe that it will foreshadow something bad happening. Young or old we never know what tomorrow will bring and frankly, these are documents every adult should have. I know people who get a Will done before they go on vacation. This confounds me – can an accident not occur at home? It is not uncommon to hear that children of senior parents are reluctant to speak with their parents about the care they might need as they age or, of the plans they would like made for them if they are close to the end of their life.

Again, there is a fear attached to raising these issues and a great discomfort, which is understandable. However, not talking about these issues doesn't mean the events we are afraid of won't happen - it just means we won't be prepared for them if/when they happen and, we will be even more stressed and overwhelmed than we need to be, if/when they do. All of these things are so important that you need to discuss the 'hard stuff' in order to get through it when the time comes, despite the discomfort you think the discussion will incur.

Once you have the "conversation", the documents need to follow. In my work as a hospital social worker in years past, in working with people that often unexpectedly ended up hospitalized, there would often be a need for important documents that others needed to access, but had no idea where to find. Beyond the obvious health care related items like one's health card and perhaps insurance documents, what about other items? A Power of Attorney? (this is not just an issue for an older person - what about a young person who is in an accident and is now incapable of making decisions?) What about banking documents, if bills have to be paid? What if the person has dependents they are responsible for (e.g. children) that need care? A host of issues go through one's mind when you see unexpected situations with less than favourable outcomes.

As a result of my experience, I have begun to advise people to create an 'Emergency File' with important documents in it that they update annually, keep in a safe but accessible place and inform close relatives/caregivers of it's location in the event of an emergency. It is best to include only photocopies in this file and keep originals in a safe but accessible place if they are required. I have found using an accordion file works well.

Suggested items for your Emergency File:

  • Copy of passport
  • Copy of birth certificate or immigration documents
  • Copy of marriage certificate
  • Copy of all credit cards
  • Copy of Power of Attorney (note on it location of original)
  • Copy of Will (note on it location of original)
  • Copy of insurance documents
  • Copy of mortgage/loan documents
  • Copy of account numbers for all monthly payments (utilities etc.)
  • Copy of medical documents
  • Copy of financial documents, bank books/statements, investment accounts, brokerage accounts/names of financial advisors
  • Social Insurance Number
  • Health Card Number

If you are a caregiver for someone else - children or seniors and have documents for them or related to them there should be copies there too

List of doctors, friends, family & phone numbers/caregivers

Ultimately, one hopes that they never need such a file but having one, and encouraging your loved ones to do the same, regardless of their age or situation, affords one peace of mind and will make you feel prepared for unexpected, and often stressful situations.

Esther Goldstein, B.Sc., B.S.W., RSW is a former acute care hospital social worker, the author of the annual Ontario publication the "Comprehensive Guide to Retirement Living & Long-Term Care®" and administrator of the affiliated national website She is a seasoned lecturer and former educator at U of T School of Continuing Studies, sharing her knowledge with professionals, seniors and their families, by giving workshops and lectures at various venues on 'Senior Living Options' and related topics. Esther can be contacted at