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THE GOODS : Maximum Security : Safe-Deposit Boxes Keep Important Papers Out of Harm's Way


Yes, you have flashlights in each room. There are a dozen gallon-bottles of water placed throughout the apartment. That duffel bag is sitting at the ready in the hallway should you be forced to flee your home in an earthquake. You have your medications, a radio, $100 in traveler's checks. . . . You're ready.

But what about your important papers, such as your will, your passport and your insurance records? You know you could find them in a pinch or two, all right maybe three, in a non-emergency. But how will you retrieve them in the midst of a disaster?

The best safeguard is to place important documents in a safe-deposit box at a bank.

"Keep your deed to your house there, and the pink slip to your automobile in case your car blows up because of a fire next to it after an earthquake," said Jaime Arteaga, a spokesman at the California Office of Emergency Services (hot line: [800] 286-SAFE). "These deposit boxes should do well in a quake, because the vaults are very secure."

The boxes were inadvertently put to the test during the Los Angeles riots of 1992 when a Bank of America branch and one of then-Security Pacific Bank burned to the ground. The vaults of both banks remained intact.

Charlie Coleman, a spokesman for the now-merged banks, also points to the role safe-deposit boxes have played in rehabilitation efforts in a damaged community.

Following the Malibu fire in November, 1993, several customers were able to retrieve videotapes of the contents of their homes from storage at banks and present them to their insurance companies.

The annual rent on Bank of America boxes starts at $25 for the smallest and goes up to $200. The bank gives new customers a list of papers suggested for storage. These include birth, marriage and death certificates; adoption papers; citizenship papers; automobile titles; deeds, and household inventories.

Copies of the originals should be kept at home for easy access. Also suggested for home storage are appliance manuals and warranties, tax returns, records of business expenses, canceled checks and insurance policies.

With insurance companies now recording all transactions on computer, Lyn Norton, a State Farm account executive in Pasadena, deems payment receipts sufficient proof of a policy being in force.

"If your policy is lost or burned or stolen, an agent has copies," she said. "Everything is on a backup system. But it's important to keep your canceled checks and to file them with your important papers. It's more important to show your policy is paid than to have the policy."

Increasingly, people are turning to fireproof units to store their belongings at home. These storage chests, file drawers and safes come in various sizes and cost $25 to $299 at office supply stores. They give specifications on how long the product can withstand fire and at what temperature.

But Arteaga warns that in event of an earthquake or fire, it might not always be possible to retrieve such safes. And if you have a bad back, forget it. Some shoppers can't even lift the smallest safe off the store shelf, let alone run with it in an emergency.

Roberta Smith, a fee-only financial planner based in Santa Monica, said that while some of her clients have safes built into their homes, she nevertheless urges that valuable papers be stored elsewhere, preferably in a safe-deposit box.

Smith cautions against storing important documents with relatives or friends in other states. "You must be very careful in whose hands you put the detailed information about your life," she said.

Smith advises keeping documents such as tax records and bank statements for six years. "I'm conservative about these," she said. CPA Larry Agle, of the Lake Forest firm DeKarver & Agle, said five years will suffice. Although the IRS has three years to examine your return, he said the California Franchise Tax Board has an additional year. (There's no time limit for the IRS when it comes to fraud.)


For storage of such bulky paperwork, many people have followed the lead of businesses since the Northridge quake and turned to large facilities such as Iron Mountain, a records management company with 65 outlets nationwide (including ones in Hollywood, South Gate, Downtown Los Angeles, Long Beach and City of Industry, among other Southern California locales). While primarily keeping copies of records, checks, X-rays, videotapes, microfilm, backup tapes and other items for businesses, the company also services individual accounts at its warehouses.

Even if disaster does strike, experts concur that with considerable effort, most lost or destroyed papers can be replaced.

Elaine Komis, a public affairs specialist with the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, said if an original naturalization certificate is lost, a replacement can be issued by the local INS office. She also advises that despite a written warning to the contrary, naturalization papers may be reproduced for the purpose of filing a benefit application with the INS.

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