What to do about important documents in a natural disaster

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With the devastating floods wreaking havoc across parts of the Country, we thought it was a good time to talk about what documents you should try and save if you need to leave your home in an emergency.

When news of a disaster hits the television, I am taken back 20 odd years ago to when the bushfires engulfed Canberra. As it became clear the fires were going to hit our suburb, I distinctly remember my dad telling me “If there is something that you can’t live without, you’d better grab it now.” It was good advice as it turned out. We left our home that afternoon when the fires became too dangerous and returned later that day to see that the house had been destroyed.

So, what did I take? It’s not something that I had ever considered before. In the height of a relatively stressful situation, I put two things in the car. A box stuffed full of records and one of those old concertina expanding file things full of stuff. I’m really glad I got the records because there are a lot of memories in those vinyls. However, I have to say, I don’t think I saved anything of great significance with the expanding file.

Looking now, what would I say today is important to take with you?

General guidance

Don't risk your life to save anything. The world won't come to an end if you don't save a particular document. Most documents are replaceable. If they aren't, the issues that come up from not having them are almost always manageable. Saving documents is helpful but not worth your life.

Birth certificates

One of the things I saved was my birth certificate. I do still have that original today. However, your birth certificate is replaceable. The document is an extract from the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages and it's easy to get a new one online. The NSW government offers free replacements for documents lost in natural disasters.  


If you've bought a house or entered a significant transaction, it is likely you have a copy of the contract at home. You might even have the original. If that is the only copy that exists, it's helpful to save it but again, don't risk your life for it.

If you have a contract dating back more than 10 years, there is a high chance that that is the only copy in existence – your lawyer only needs to keep documents like this for 7 years. If you will need that contract in the future for tax or other purposes, rescue that document.

That being said, things have changed in the last decade. In our practice, every document we prepare or that comes into our office is scanned and stored in secure cloud storage. We essentially have access to those scanned documents forever. It’s unlikely that you will ever need an original wet-signed copy of a contract.


Deed are much like contracts. If you hold the only known copy and you may need it in the future, then you should grab it before you make your exit.


Your will is in a class of its own. That’s because wills aren’t used until you die at some stage in the (hopefully distance) future. The other significant issue is that if you lose your will and you can’t make a new one due to, for example, a capacity issue, you’re stuck. Your estate could be regulated according to your previous will or according to the rules of intestacy. Either way, it’s unlikely that your wishes will be carried out.

Storing a will at home is risky: natural disasters, your family might not be able to find it, you might forget where you put it, someone may find it and (not liking the content) destroy it. Accordingly, we recommend that you leave your will into safe custody with your lawyer. Safe custody is a particular form of storage. Lawyers are obliged to safely store safe custody documents until you authorise release or you die. In the latter case, it would only be released to your executor. If a firm moves or closes we have to get your instructions about your safe custody documents. You can be confident that your will (or other document) that’s in safe custody is safe.

If you do have your will at home, save it.

Title deeds

In New South Wales, certificates of title (title deeds) have been abolished as proof of ownership in terms of their legal effect. There is no real benefit to holding a title deed. Don’t risk your life for a title deed.

Share or unit certificates

Companies must keep a register of issued shares and ownership is recorded with ASIC. It’s unlikely that you would ever need to produce an original share certificate. However, trusts are private arrangements and ownership is not recorded publicly. It may be that a unit certificate is a critical document to prove you own a unit in a trust. If you have this kind of document at home, save it.

Trust deeds, company constitutions and other corporate agreements

It is unlikely that you would ever need to present an original trust deed, company constitution or shareholder type document that could not be overcome in some way. In many cases, the solicitor or accountant who created these documents will hold a copy of these documents. However, if you think you are holding the only available copy, you should save the document.

Sentimental motivation

Despite the comments above, it may be that a particular copy of a document has sentimental value to you, beyond its legal value. Replacement birth certificates are easy to obtain but it may be that the original document holds memories for you – the look and feel of the paper, the folds etc. It may be important to rescue an original, even if you don’t need to. The same might go for things like title documents. Even though the document is of no legal effect, it might be that an old title deed or document has sentimental value for you. But you shouldn’t put your life at risk for sentimentality. But it might be that time permitting, it would be the kind of thing that you want to take with you.

Final word(s)

Frantically searching for anything during time which should be used to orchestrate the safe evacuation of truly irreplaceable family and pets is ill-advised and dangerous. Instead, consider having these important documents together in a safe place that you can easily grab as you leave. The location of these documents should form part of any disaster action plan you and your family create.

After writing this, I pulled out my old concertina file thing from under the house to see what I had actually rescued back in 2003. Among the gems were:

• year 6 graduation certificate

• an expired international driving licence

• results from the 1991 primary school maths competition

• my old scuba diving planner

• a certificate from winning a haiku-writing competition

A great trip down memory lane, but nothing I’d risk my life for.