What is the best way to scan, store and organize important family documents, such as birth certificates, passports and property rights?
In an emergency, the last thing you want to do is look for documents. The same can be said when stress or sadness is high. Ideally, all important documents that you need will be easily found and easily accessed. How did you do that?
The best way to put important documents at your fingertips is without paper by digitizing them and then storing electronic files to a place where you can retrieve them from your computer, tablet or smartphone. In many cases, you also have to keep a physical copy of paper, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make digital copies either. There are so many advantages to doing it.
First, you end up with a backup copy, which is very helpful if something happens to the original. Second, you can retrieve documents anytime and anywhere as long as you have a secure internet connection. Third, when information is digitized, you can search for it using keywords instead of crossing stacks of paper. Finally, it’s much easier to share electronic files with lawyers, financial advisers, or family members who need them, than to send a fax or photocopy.
What are some important family documents that you might want to digitize? What is the best way to scan and store it for safe, easy to find, and always available when you need it?
Sample Documents to Digitize
You don’t need to digitize everything. Although there may be some potential value in storing every utility bill or every credit card statement, what are the chances you need it and can’t access it from your online bank account or your utility provider?
Instead, focus on documents that you might need to refer to at some point (for example, tax returns) or to what you will benefit from having a backup copy. Some examples are:
- Documents relating to major changes in life: birth certificate; adoption paper; marriage, divorce, domestic partnership certificate; certificate and immigration form
- Passport, driver’s license, and identity card
- Health reports, including vaccines and immunization records
- Pet Note
- Official education transcripts and graduation certificates
- Title and deed for property
- Lease and loan agreement
- Tax refund
Family photos may come to mind too, but they require a completely different process to scan and save. With documents, you don’t need high resolution images, but with photos that you take. Plus, with photos, you have an account for color, sepia tone, or gray scale, which is usually not a problem with standard documents.
If you have historical family documents that are more like family photos, maybe because they are antiques or have sentimental value, then you might be better off handling them like photos. For any document that is very delicate or of high value, consider contacting an archivist for assistance, or reading some tips from the US National Archives.
How to digitize important documents
First of all, let’s look at how to scan a document and convert it into an electronic file.
You don’t need a desk scanner to get professional-looking results. What you need is a smartphone with a cellular scanning application, a high contrast surface (e.g., if your paper is white, the surface must be dark), and proper lighting.
To scan documents:
- Place the paper on a very contrast surface. Make sure you have enough lighting. Being by the window during the day is very helpful.
- Place the document flat. Most scanning applications correct small imperfections, such as folds and inverted angles, but if you can make a document even, it’s ideal.
- Open the scanning application and position your phone in line with the document. Most scanning applications have automatic edge detection, as long as you make a reasonable effort to frame the page in the on-screen guide.
- Most applications scan pages automatically, but in some cases you may have to tap to complete the scan. The application will then ask you to repeat the process if you want to add more pages to the same file.
Many great scanning applications are free or offer a free level of service. ABBYY FineScanner and Microsoft Office Lens are two great examples. In cloud storage and note-taking applications (which you may already have), document scanning is included. That applies to the Dropbox mobile app, for example, and the Evernote mobile app.
If you want the ability to edit a document that you scan, for example, to change a piece of paper into a Microsoft Word document, then you need a scanning application that includes OCR and conversion to editable text.
Where to Store Documents Safely
Have you used a cloud storage service or file synchronization service, such as Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive, to store and back up important files? Then it might make sense to use the same service to store your family’s documents.
There is no shortage of cloud storage solutions. All the options mentioned so far – Dropbox, Evernote, Google Drive, OneDrive – are very good options. Most importantly, because it is very popular, scanning applications often give you the option to export your digital documents directly to them; or they offer their own integrated scanning function.
- Should You Consider the Online Will?
Whatever service you choose, make sure it encrypts your data and make sure you use a unique and long password for the account. The password manager is your best friend in this regard.
How to Manage Digital Family Documents
Depending on the extent of your family’s documents, you can create a series of folders and subfolders in your storage service to organize them. However, this takes time, and people often start one way to sort and organize before realizing halfway that it won’t work.
So, a quick and easy way to do it is year. Start by creating 10 folders and renaming them for the past 10 years. For example, you will have folders named 2020, 2019, 2018, and so on. After you reached 11 years ago, add “and longer” (or something similar) to the folder name. In other words, your oldest folder will be called “2010 and longer.”
Now you can sort digital paper into folders and find out roughly where they are. For identity cards, use the year of issue. For transcripts, use the last year of school attendance. If you have too many files in any folder, just create subfolders according to the theme, such as “Tax Document 2020” or “Medical Records 2019”.
What about file names? I find it reasonable to give a good file name when I first scan, usually because I scan documents for a reason. If a doctor asks me to submit a copy of my vaccination record, I give the file a clear name before I submit it.
If you scan a large number of documents at one time, focus on putting them in the correct folder by year, and definitely creating subfolders to help you understand what you have. That way, you don’t need to drown too much time in changing file names, but your documents are still in a reasonable order when you need to find something.
Remember Your Purpose
Always remember the purpose of digitizing your documents. For very important documents, the goal might be to have a backup copy, if something happens to the original document. For other types of paper, the purpose might be to make it easily accessible the next time you have to send it to someone else. Remember your purpose for your guide when it comes to naming and sorting files in particular. As long as you remember it, you can handle this project easily and end up with amazing results.