Everything You Need to Know About Organizing Important Documents

Marriage certificates, passports, land titles�"would you know where to find them? Learn how to organize and protect these documents properly.

Photography: Dairy Darilag (Main Photo, Interior)

Securing important personal documents is important for a number of reasons: a person may want to prepare for death, or one may be anticipating (knock on wood) an untoward incident like a burglary or a fire. You need to know where these are located at any time you may have to use the documents.

Often, experience is the best teacher: it’s either someone has lived through these unfortunate times, or knows someone who did. But the goal for organizing personal documents is the same for everyone: to have these documents intact and ready, and on hand when the need arises.

What are considered “important personal documents” may vary from person to person, but in case you don’t know where to start, we’ve culled this list of common documents and their uses from some Real Living readers:

  • Birth and wedding certificates: Needed for school enrolment, passport application, benefit claims, among many others
  • Passports: Travel, identification
  • ID (identification) cards such as SSS, Philhealth, Pag-IBIG, etc.: Identification, membership payments, benefit claims.
  • Property titles: Proof of ownership
  • Insurance and other pre-need policies: Also needed for benefit claims
  • Annual income tax return: Tax payments, proof of income
  • Stock certificates: Proof of ownership
  • Bank passbooks, check books, statements of account: Verification of transactions, these are also sometimes needed when applying for visas abroad
  • Vehicle registration and insurance, plus car maintenance and repair records: Annual car registration
  • Employment pay slips: For verification of deductions and payments, proof of income
  • Annual physical exam results and other medical records: Employment, claiming of benefits, insurance applications
  • A legal will or testament: For legal distribution of properties and assets after the testator’s death


Now, how do you keep these documents safe and ensure that they’re accessible when you need them?

1. Keep hard copies. Have both the original and some extra photocopies for birth and wedding certificates and other forms of identification. This way, if you just need a photocopy, you don’t have to take out the original.

2. Make digital copies. Use free document scanning apps for Android and iOs to create digital copies right from your mobile phone or tablet. You just take photos of the documents using your phone camera and the app converts it into a JPG, TIFF, or PDF file which you can open anywhere. There are two ways to store these all-important, confidential digital copies: 

  • Save files in an external hard drive. Yeng Lucido, homemaker and mom of three, keeps their family’s documents even more secure with a password. If you’re tech-savvy, you can encrypt your files (or your entire hard drive), which makes them unreadable unless you have the security key.
  • Use a file hosting storage service. Upload the files to Google Drive, Dropbox, or Apple iCloud Drive. Make sure you restrict access to your family or those whom you trust. These services are free to use up to a certain file size, but you can also opt for the paid service to increase your file size limit.
  • Send the files to your email address. Eda Goloy, a marketing professional, prefers to have immediate access to their files, so she makes it a point to keep a copy in her inbox. Remember to change your password often and choose a high security password.


3. Devise a system for organizing your personal documents. All it takes is a trip to the nearest bookstore. Here are some ideas:

  • Organize documents by topic, with one folder for each, as Eda does. This way, it’s easier for you to find what you are looking for.
  • Use expanding file envelopes, ring binders, plastic envelopes (below), and clear file folders that you can easily get at any bookstore. Net Garcia, executive director for Children’s Hour, would usually look for sturdy ones and use a different color for every type of document or every member of the family. Make sure, too, they are easy to grab in one go in case of emergency.
  • Label the file containers properly. Use a labeling machine to ensure the labels are clear and readable. Index tabs make the labels pop out of the pockets.
  • Keep everything in one place—a central station that everyone in the household is aware of. Make sure to separate important documents from everyday clutter like receipts, children’s artwork, and the like. You don’t want to risk accidentally throwing away anything important.
  • If you take a document out, remember to put it back. Avoid misplacing a personal document by practicing this basic rule.

4. Look into the possibility of buying a safe. Stores like True Value, Ace Hardware, and even National Book Store have a selection of safes in various sizes and price points. Yeng says to take size into consideration (the bigger, the better, so you don’t have to fold any documents), and look out for secure access control features as well as fireproof and waterproof ratings. Leading up to Fire Prevention Month every March, safes usually go on sale, according to Yeng.


But take note: while having a fireproof safe at home may protect your documents, you will still have to make sure that mold and mildew do not damage your documents inside the safe. Yeng shares, “I put dehumidifiers inside our safe every now and then. I also air out [our personal documents] regularly.”

5. Consider renting a safety deposit box at the bank—but as they say, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Remember that a safety deposit box can be accessed only during banking hours, so any document that you or your family will need to access quickly in case of emergency, is best kept inside a safe in your home.

Investment certificates, property titles, and vehicle registration documents may be stored in a bank safety deposit box. Depending on the size of the safety deposit box, the annual rental fee can go from P500 to P3,000 for China Bank, and P400 to P4,500 for BPI. Ask your bank to discuss the terms and conditions of this service.

6. Once you have all these down pat, don’t forget to leave a written set of instructions together with your personal documents: who to call, what to do, what to bring. Eda considers this very important to her and her husband Pat, as she says not all couples or families can openly talk about death and emergency situations.

It’s a pretty good point, since what’s the point of color-coding and organizing all these documents if nobody knows what to do with them?

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