Important Records Survivors Should Keep
Survivors will benefit from keeping and organizing important records, including employment records, insurance policies, medical reports, receipts, invoices, tax records and financial statements. Knowing what records you need to keep and how to obtain and store your documents will assist you with this process.
Important Records Survivors Should Keep: Detailed Information
This information is meant to be a general introduction to this topic. The purpose is to provide a starting point for you to become more informed about important matters that may be affecting your life as a survivor and to provide ideas about steps you can take to learn more. This information is not intended nor should it be interpreted as providing professional legal and financial advice. You should consult a trained professional for more information. Please read Suggestions and Additional Resources for questions to ask and for more resources.
The cancer journey generally includes a lot of paperwork. You might think that keeping and organizing this information may take too much time or be unnecessary. However, there is likely to be a great benefit to having copies of important documents such as employment records, insurance policies, medical reports, receipts, invoices, tax records and financial statements.
The idea of dealing with paperwork and record keeping may seem overwhelming. However, keep in mind that you do not have to do everything all at once. If you do not feel well enough to find and organize your records by yourself, ask someone you trust to help you. In the end, the planning and organizing that will go into your record keeping process will make life easier for you and your loved ones.
This document focuses on organizing and keeping records that are likely to be important to survivors including:
- Employment benefit records
- Insurance policies
- MIB reports
- Social Security benefit records
- Health records
- Credit reports
- Personal financial records
- Advance care directives
- Will and living trust
Start by reviewing the records you already have. You will most likely want to get copies of the documents you do not have. That way, you or a trusted family member or friend will be able to quickly access the information that is needed, especially in case of an emergency.
Some of this information may also be required at tax time. In addition, it is likely to be needed during the process of applying for medical or disability benefits. These records can help you to document and keep track of your medical progress.
- Employment Benefit Records: Employer-provided benefits include health insurance and disability plans, vacation time, sick leave and personal days. A written record of these policies will help explain the benefits provided by your employer that would be related to your medical condition.
An employee handbook or company website should include your company benefit information in one place. If not, ask your benefit coordinator for a copy as well as an explanation of the employer-provided benefits you are eligible to receive.
- Insurance Policies: An insurance policy spells out your coverage and the procedures that must be followed to file a claim for benefits.
The insurance policies you have may include:
- Health and hospital insurance
- Excess liability insurance
- Life insurance
- Long-term care insurance
- Long-term disability insurance
- Property and casualty policies, including fire, liability and auto
- Short-term disability insurance
- Workers' compensation policy, if you have in-home employees
- Cancer insurance
If you do not have a copy of each of your insurance policies, contact your insurance company and request a copy. Remember, you do not have to disclose your cancer history when asking for these policies. Simply explain that you have misplaced your copy of the policy and need another.
- The MIB Group, Inc. Report (formerly known as the Medical Information Bureau): Although you may not be familiar with the MIB Group, the medical and other information they have about you could affect your ability to get insurance coverage.
The MIB is an association of more than 500 insurance companies from the United States and Canada. The MIB was created by insurance companies to protect themselves from fraud. They do this by sharing information about applicants for insurance policies with their member companies. The results of investigative reports (underwriting) done by the insurance companies are combined with the information in the MIB report and compared with your application for life, health, or disability insurance.
An error in your MIB records could prevent you from obtaining insurance coverage. It could also impact how much you have to pay for a policy--so it is a good idea to check your MIB report to ensure that it is accurate. If you discover a mistake, you can request a correction from the MIB, as well as a reinvestigation by the insurer that provided the inaccurate information.
- Social Security Personal Earnings and Benefit Record: The Social Security Administration (SSA) keeps track of your taxable earnings throughout your work life. The amount and timing of your earnings determine your Social Security benefits. Benefits may include disability income if you become unable to work.
A copy of your work history and earnings (Personal Earnings and Benefits Estimate Statement) should be sent to you each year by the SSA. If you have not received this report in the last year, contact the SSA to verify that your name, social security number, date of birth and address on file are correct.
When you receive the information from the SSA:
- Check your work history and earnings to make sure that this earnings history information is correct.
- Be sure you understand which government-sponsored benefits you would receive if you retire or become disabled. For example, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is based on disability and having limited income and resources, not on your work history.
- Health Records: Keep information about your health organized and easily accessible, such as in a journal, file folders, or 3-ring binder. Organize this information by date and type of services received.
Include the originals or copies of the following records and information about your health history:
- Copies of medical records, receipts, invoices and statements for prescriptions, medical equipment, and doctor and hospital visits
- Contact information for all the of the professionals, including social workers, physical and occupational therapists, nurses and doctors you see now or have seen in the past
- Information about medications, vitamins and allergies
- Medical treatment history, including dates, diagnoses, and other information
- Lists of medical symptoms and concerns
Your health information can be used in many situations including:
- Asking for a reasonable accommodation or adjustment to your work environment or schedule so that you can continue to work
- Filing a claim if you experience discrimination at work
- Completing applications for insurance policies
- Preparing your tax returns
- Credit Reports: A credit report includes information on where you live, how you pay your bills, and whether you have been sued, arrested, or filed for bankruptcy.
There are three rating companies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Each of these is likely to have a file on your borrowing history including how much you have borrowed and whether or not you have paid your debts on time. These companies, or credit bureaus, sell the information in your report to creditors, insurers, employers and other businesses that use it to evaluate your applications for credit, insurance, employment, or purchasing or renting a home.
The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) promotes the accuracy and privacy of information in the files of the nation's three major consumer reporting companies. The FCRA requires that each of these companies provide you with a free copy of your credit report at least once every 12 months, if you request one. Each of these credit bureaus also gives you a borrowing score, called a credit score or a credit rating. This is a brief way of describing your credit history. Lenders check with these bureaus before agreeing to lend you money.
Check your information with all three bureaus as they may not have the same information on you. Lenders may use any of the three when considering your application. You may order your reports from each of the three nationwide consumer reporting companies at the same time, or you can order your report from one company at a time. You may want to order your report from a different reporting company every 4 months so you are able to receive free reports throughout the year.
Check your credit history and the rating assigned to you by the credit bureaus at least once a year to be sure each report is accurate. This will help keep errors from becoming a part of your record. If you apply for a mortgage or loan, you are entitled to a copy of the credit report received by the lender.
If you are concerned about a sudden need for cash or the possibility of credit fraud, consider checking your credit history (but not necessarily your credit rating) every three to six months. There are companies that offer to correct your credit for a fee. However, there is nothing they can do about your credit that you cannot do yourself for free.
- Personal Financial Records: Keeping good financial records is not only useful, but is required if you are ever audited by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Being organized will also help you accurately assess and present your financial condition if you apply for disability benefits or for financial assistance, such as a loan.
The length of time you should keep your records varies with the type of document and from individual to individual. Contact your accountant or state tax commissioner for specific information related to your situation.
The following is a basic list of personal financial records you need to keep:
- A record of all your bank accounts and investments including stocks, bonds, real estate, and your retirement accounts and other assets.
- A record of all your designated beneficiary information for each bank account, investment account, life insurance policy and other accounts.
- A list of all your debts including credit cards, mortgage, vehicle loans and other obligations.
- Instructions and computer passwords relating to automatic payments such as home rent or mortgage, utilities, insurance, credit cards, auto and other loans.
- Titles and ownership documents for your boat, automobiles and other vehicles.
- Notation of anticipated future income that is out of the ordinary for you such as expected inheritances.
- Notation of any expected future losses that would not be typical such as future debt that you anticipate.
- Statements for bank, credit card and investment accounts for at least the last year. These can provide an idea of expected expenses and a record of purchases. >
- Records of your tax returns. Consult the IRS for current recommendations on how long to keep tax records (www.irs.gov).Generally, tax records should be kept for at least three to seven years—depending on the type of record. Documents such as records relating to a home purchase or sale, stock transactions, IRA and business or rental property need to be kept longer periods. The laws in your state governing the length of time to keep state tax returns may be different. Ask your tax preparer to provide you this information. Keep in mind that there is no time limit on an IRS audit if they suspect a fraudulent return or if you did not file a tax return.
- Keep paycheck stubs for at least one year and check the information against the W-2 form you receive from your employer at the end of the year to ensure it is accurate.
- Advance directives: These signed legal documents give you the control and legal ability to state exactly how you want to be cared for and who you want to make decisions for you if you become incapacitated.
Check the laws of your state to learn the legal requirements for advance directives because there are many types, and they can be very complicated to set up. Workshops providing information on preparing advance directives are often offered through local education and medical programs. If you would like help, discuss your thoughts about advance care directives with an attorney and trusted loved ones. Remember to also discuss your wishes concerning health care and treatment directives with your doctors.
When you prepare your will, your attorney will often prepare medical and financial advance directives at the same time.
The following are common types of medical and financial advance directives:
Medical Advance Directives
The following are very broad definitions of various types of advance directives. Talk with your health care team and an attorney to learn more.
- DNR (Do not resuscitate order) – An advance directive that states that no life-saving medical procedures, including CPR, are to be used if the heart or breathing stops.
- Out-of-hospital DNR – An advance directive that is available in some states for hospice patients to specify their wishes that no life-saving medical procedures be used if the heart or breathing stops.
- Durable power of attorney for health care – This type of advance directive provides the power of attorney to another (your agent or proxy) in the event you become unable to do so because of a medical condition.
- Living will – A statement that tells your family and your doctor what types of medical care you do and do not want in the event that you become unable to make these types of decisions. Living wills may include information related to pain management, medications, hydration, feeding, and the use of life support measures.>
- Health care proxy – A legal document that designates another person to make health care decisions if you cannot. Provides the same ability to request or refuse treatment that you would have if you could make and communicate decisions.>
Financial Advance Directives
The following are terms related to financial advance directives:
- Conservator – A person appointed by the court to make decisions for you if you are unable to do so and do not have a durable power of attorney for financial affairs and/or a durable power of attorney for health care.>
- Guardian - A person appointed by the court to make necessary decisions for minor children for a specified period of time should you become unable to do so.
- Durable power of attorney – A signed document that lets you appoint a trusted person to speak and act on your behalf (your agent or proxy) to make financial decisions for you if you are unable to do so. The agent has the ability to take care of financial matters such as writing checks and doing bank transactions, signing of Social Security checks, and applying for disability on your behalf.>
- Revocable living trust – An arrangement you make for the management and distribution of your property. You can provide instructions to hold or distribute your property
- Directives concerning minor children – Documents that ensure that in the event of your incapacity or death, your children are taken care of in accordance with your wishes rather than those of a court-appointed guardian.
You can modify or eliminate arrangements at any time through a trust. Keep in mind that if you become unable to make your own choices and do not have an advance directive, a person that you may want to make your decisions as your agent may not be considered. This is particularly true if the person is not related to you, such as an unmarried partner.
- Will: A will is a very important legal document that states how you would like your property to be distributed when you die. A will can also state who you want to name to be the guardian of your children if this is ever necessary.
Your will should specify:
- Who is to receive your assets or who your beneficiaries will be
- What the beneficiaries will receive
- When the beneficiaries will receive the assets
- How the distribution of your assets is to be done
- Other Documents and Information a Survivor May Need: To help a trusted family member or friend locate your important records in an emergency, write down where the following can be located. Include information such as:
- Personal information concerning family members and beneficiaries including:
- Social Security numbers
- Birth certificates
- Marriage and divorce records
- Prenuptial and postnuptial agreements
- Immunization records
- Military records and discharge papers
- A "list of instructions" with information about important matters in your life
- The location of keys and financial institutions for safe deposit boxes
- A list of passwords that may be needed to obtain online information
- The location of keys or lock combinations for lock boxes or filing cabinets
- Notification list for emergencies, including names, phone numbers, addresses and email addresses.
Where Important Documents Should be Kept
- Give copies of important legal documents directly to the person who is responsible for carrying out those provisions. This includes your will, the signed durable power of attorney forms and other advance directives.
- Keep a copy of these documents for yourself. Do not keep any advance directives in your safe-deposit box as they would not be easily accessible when needed.
- Store your will and other important documents in a safe place, but make sure that trusted family or friends know where these documents are and how they can get to them in an emergency. It is often recommended that original documents be kept with your attorney, while a copy that tells the location of the original is stored in a safe place in your home.
Guidelines for storage of important documents vary from state to state, but are generally as follows:
Where to Store Documents
Directives concerning minor children
Original(s): In possession of the named guardian
Copies: With your attorney
DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) Order
Original: With your doctor
Copies: With the representative or agent you have designated to act on your behalf or a close family member or "next of kin." (Next of kin is defined differently in each state but the legal order is usually: 1) spouse, 2) children or parents, 3) grandchildren, 4) siblings, 5) nieces or nephews.)
Durable power of attorney for financial affairs
Duplicate Signed Originals: With you and your attorney
Copies: With your appointed representative and alternate(s)
Durable power of attorney for health care
Duplicate Signed Originals: With your representative and your attorney; talk with close relatives about your wishes
Copies: With your primary doctor, medical specialists, pharmacist, nursing home and/or hospital
Duplicate Signed Originals: With your doctor and your representative
Copies: Other copies are not needed, but talk with close relatives about your wishes.
Duplicate Signed Originals: Signed original document posted where the hospice patient resides, and duplicate signed original with the doctor
Copies: With representative and/or close relative(s); also talk with close relatives about your wishes
Revocable living trust
Duplicate Signed Originals: In your possession and with your attorney
Copies: With your trustee(s)
Signed Original: In your possession or with your attorney
Copy: In a safe place that can easily be accessed by your representative
Making the effort to collect important records and information now can actually save you a lot of time, stress and even expense in the future. If this task seems overwhelming, you may want to ask trusted people in your life to help you get what you need. Organized records will help you or others to quickly locate the information when it is needed.
For more information about organizing records that may be important to survivors, visit www.LIVESTRONG.org/howtoorganizeimportantrecords.
This document was produced in collaboration with:
David S. Landay, Esq., author of Be Prepared, The Complete Financial, Legal and Practical Guide for Living with Cancer, HIV and Other Life-Challenging Conditions.
Bennett, Robin L. Genetic Health. "Getting Medical Records and Information." 12 July 2006.
Federal Trade Commission. For the Consumer: "Fair Credit Reporting Act." 10 August 2006.
Garnet, Robert J., Robert B. Coplan, Barbara J. Raasch and Charles L. Ratner. Ernst & Young's Personal Financial Planning Guide, 2nd ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1996.
Hallman, G. Victor and Jerry S. Rosenbloom. Personal Financial Planning, 5th Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1993.
IDG Books Worldwide, Inc. Personal Finance for Dummies. California: IDG Books Worldwide, 1994.
Landay, David S. Be Prepared: The Complete Financial, Legal and Practical Guide to Living with Cancer, HIV and Other Life-Challenging Conditions. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.
Social Security Administration, Social Security Online. Social Security Forms: Request for Social Security Statement. Wilkes Barre, PA: 2006.
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Important Records Survivors Should Keep: Suggestions
The suggestions that follow are based on the information presented in the Detailed Information document. They are meant to help you take what you learn and apply the information to your own needs. This information is not intended nor should it be interpreted as providing professional medical, legal and financial advice. You should consult a trained professional for more information. Please read the Additional Resources document for links to more resources.
Include the following steps as you begin collecting and reviewing your important records:
- Make a list of categories to be included in your list, such as information about the family and children, medical contact records, financial accounts, pet information, household records and information about your assets.
- Write down information important to each category including how things are organized or set up and how to find usernames, passwords or keys that will be needed to access files, accounts and other storage areas.
- Record important information related to care of family members and pets that might otherwise be overlooked.
- Note important dates, instructions, usernames and passwords related to payment of bills and care of your home.
- Write down storage locations for important documents as well as instructions about how to access the documents.
- Talk with whoever might need the list of instructions (a trusted family member or friend) about its purpose and where the list is kept.
- Be certain that the individual(s) with whom you share your list of instructions is trustworthy and willing to take care of matters on your list if there is ever a need.
Talk with your family or close friends about getting help gathering your important records. The record keeping process can seem overwhelming at first. It may be that you know someone who has done this before or has a good organizing approach that could help you. Storage of records can be done in a variety of ways, such as using a box, 3-ring binders, or a filing cabinet. Getting help from loved ones, even if it is just emotional support, can make the task easier.
If you do not have a copy of your employer-provided benefit handbook, contact the human resources department and request a copy. As a survivor, you may want to review specific information about your employee benefits and the employer-sponsored insurance policies.
If you have lost track of any of your insurance policies, you can request another copy from the insurance company. You do not have to disclose your cancer history when requesting the copy of your existing policy. Review all of your insurance policies at least once every two years with your insurance agent to understand your current insurance coverage, to confirm that you have appropriate coverage and to review your options relating to deductibles and other insurance needs.
If you need to request a copy of your medical records: Although it can prove challenging to get your records, all medical providers, such as hospitals and doctors, can provide you with a release form to request your medical records. Request the information through the doctor's office or hospital medical records department.
Start by calling to find out if your medical records are still available and ask if you can send a letter rather than the release form if that is more convenient for you. Include relevant information in your request letter, including:
- Your birth date
- Your full name and any name changes
- The time frame when you received medical services
- The specific types of records you want, such as lab reports, x-rays or medical charts
- Where you want the records sent such as directly to you, to your doctor, or to both you and your doctor
Keep in mind that you can only get medical records for other members of your family with their permission. The health care provider may charge a nominal fee (often set by state law) to copy your records.
Know what information is contained within the MIB report. The MIB has information posted online (www.mib.com) that will guide you through the process of getting your report. If you discover an error, take the necessary steps to correct the information in the report.
Check your work history and earnings on the Personal Earnings and Benefits Estimate Statement (Form SSA-7004). The Social Security Administration (SSA) keeps track and sends you this information every year. If you discover an error, take steps to correct the information with the SSA. The SSA can be contacted by telephone or online regarding this and other benefit information (www.ssa.gov).
Keep records of your health history including names of health care providers, dates, diagnoses, symptoms, treatments and your concerns. This information will be helpful when dealing with future medical providers, employers and insurance companies, as well as when doing taxes. Organize this information by the date of the services received.
If you have not done so in the past year, order copies of your credit history from all three major credit bureaus. Check these reports and alert the credit bureaus to any mistakes you find. It may take some time to correct errors, so you must be persistent in following up on your report.
- You can request a free credit report from each of the three national credit bureaus every 12 months, either individually or all at the same time.
- The only Website where you can order free copies of all three credit bureau reports is www.annualcreditreport.com.
- The reports can also be ordered by calling 1-877-322-8228.
- The three national credit bureaus can also be contacted directly:
Document your personal financial records including bank accounts, life insurance policies, investments and other assets, such as stocks, bonds, and real estate. For IRS purposes you should keep your tax return-related documents for seven years. However, when your records are no longer needed for tax purposes, do not discard them until you check to see if you have to keep them longer for other purposes. For example, your insurance company or creditors may require you keep them longer.
Look into important directives that would help loved ones know your wishes, such as a will, durable power of attorney and advance directives. Consider talking with trusted family and friends when deciding on specific arrangements. Be clear with them about what you want, and find out how they feel about carrying out your wishes.
You may find it helpful to talk with an attorney about how you can legally ensure that your advance directives and wishes are clearly and accurately documented so that, if ever needed, they would be legally effective.
Clearly communicate your wishes to your attorney, doctors, immediate family members and other agents. Make certain that the right people know where copies (or the originals) of important legal documents are stored, such as the will, power of attorney and advance directives. Documents that are needed during emergencies, or for filing with the court, need to be accessible to a trusted loved one or friend.
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Important Records Survivors Should Keep: Additional Resources
The resources listed below provide more detailed information and support services to help you figure out what important records survivors should keep. Please read the Detailed Information and Suggestions document for more information and questions to ask.
LIVESTRONG Navigation Services
Online: Complete an intake form through the LIVESTRONG
Phone: 1.855.220.7777 (English and Spanish)
Navigators are available for calls Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Central Time). Voicemail is available after hours.
offers assistance to anyone affected by cancer, including the person diagnosed, loved ones, caregivers and friends. The program provides information about fertility risks and preservation options, treatment choices, health literacy and matching to clinical trials. Emotional support services, peer-to-peer matching and assistance with financial, employment and insurance issues are also available. To provide these services, LIVESTRONG
has partnered with several organizations including Imerman Angels, Navigate Cancer Foundation, Patient Advocate Foundation and EmergingMed.
AnnualCreditReport.com is the official site to help consumers obtain their free annual credit report. It was created by the three nationwide consumer credit reporting companies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Consumers who order their free annual credit reports online need to correctly spell AnnualCreditReport.com to avoid being directed to other websites that claim they offer free reports--but only with the purchase of products. While consumers may be offered additional products or services while on the authorized website (such as a credit score), you are not required to make a purchase to receive their free annual credit reports.
Cancer Legal Resource Center (CLRC)
||1-866-843-2572 or 213-736-1455
||TTY for deaf and hard of hearing callers: 1-213-736-8310
The Cancer Legal Resource Center (CLRC) provides information about cancer-related legal issues to survivors, loved ones, friends, employers, health care professionals and others coping with cancer. CLRC information covers health insurance, employment, government benefits, estate planning, advanced health care directives, family law and consumer assistance. Through the CLRC national toll-free Telephone Assistance Line callers can receive information about laws and resources for their particular situation. The CLRC volunteer panel of attorneys and other professionals can provide more in-depth information and counsel to CLRC callers. All CLRC services are free and confidential. Services are available in both English and Spanish.
MIB Group, Inc.
||TTY for deaf and hard of hearing callers: 1-866-346-342
MIB Group is a not-for-profit membership corporation that collects and shares underwriting information among its 450 member life insurance companies. If you have applied for an individual insurance policy within the last 7 years and the insurance company reviewed your medical history and records, some of that information may be available to other life insurance companies through MIB. The website provides information about what records MIB has and how those records are used by insurance companies. You can contact the MIB to find out what information they have about your medical records and what is available to life insurance companies. You can also correct information that is not accurate. Consumers are entitled to one free report from the MIB each year. You must request this report by phone.
U.S. Social Security Administration
||Send email through the website
||TTY for deaf and hard of hearing callers: 1-800-325-0778
Calls are answered Monday through Friday, 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Social Security Online is the official website of the U.S. Social Security Administration, which oversees both Social Security and Medicare. From this site, you can access information and print out forms that relate to all aspects of Social Security and Medicare. This includes finding out what benefits you qualify for, applying for benefits and requesting information about Social Security policies or procedures. The site also provides information on how to apply for burial funds or survivor's benefits, as well as how to find out what benefits survivors are entitled to. Information is available in many different languages, including Arabic, Armenian, Chinese, Farsi, French, Greek, Haitian-Creole, Italian, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese.
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