Updated April 23, 2020
What would a sudden financial emergency be in your life? It could be a storm causing massive property damage to your home or being impacted by a pandemic, such as coronavirus (COVID-19). It could also be something more personal, like an accident that would cut off your ability to make a living. In uncertain times, many worry about their health and finances.
Whatever your current situation is, if someone else had to step in to help you in an emergency situation, it's important to have a plan in place so they know what to do.
A financial emergency kit is a crucial component in financial planning. In short, a financial emergency kit involves identifying and planning for potential financial emergencies that could affect you and your loved ones. Building a successful one goes beyond sorting paperwork – it involves looking at a variety of potential situations in your life and then asking, "What's the worst that could happen?"
You will want to create a kit – a set of physical or digital documents and instructions – that can help you or someone else you trust manage in a crisis. Here are some items you'll likely want to include:
1. Estate documents. Estate planning is really the highest form of financial emergency planning, because it addresses the ultimate personal financial emergencies – medical incapacitation or death. Would your family have easy access to this material if something happened to you? In your family financial emergency kit, estate documents would include copies of current wills (for you and your spouse or partner), your advanced directives (which instruct doctors on end-of-life or other stages in medical care), health/financial powers of attorney (which designate specific individuals to step in to manage your money or healthcare if you cannot do so) as well as other documents that provide additional guidance for operating businesses and managing and distributing other assets you have. Make sure these documents are always current and that contact information is included for all the qualified experts you used to prepare them – estate or business attorneys, tax professionals and financial planners.
2. Insurance policies. Being able to find home and auto policies in a natural disaster is a no-brainer, but it's important to think a little more broadly. File as much policy and contact detail as you can for any health, disability, business, life and accident coverage you have – and remember that it's particularly important to note or file documentation on this coverage at work, too. Sometimes we sign up rather blindly for work-based benefits only to realize how important they may be in a financial emergency.
3. Tax materials. If a family member dies or becomes incapacitated, tax matters still need to be attended to. If you work with a tax professional, make sure their contact information is in the digital or physical kit (see indexes, contacts and guides, below), but it's also important to keep past returns and relevant supporting data based on your individual tax situation.
4. Investment, savings and retirement documents. If you work with a qualified financial planner or tax expert, you may have access to a particular system that lists and track this information in an organized way that many of us don't have at home. However you plan and track your investments, it should be included in your kit.
5. Indexes, contact sheets and guides. Some people need a little guidance, others need a lot. A family financial emergency kit needs to be usable by all designated family members. Put yourself in the role of a friend or family member who's been called in to help you in a crisis. If you had to step in to settle an estate, healthcare or disaster emergency for a friend or family member and they weren't around to advise you, what information would you need to get started? In any category of information you include in a financial emergency kit, include a separate file or digital instruction that details people to call, account numbers if necessary, relevant online and physical addresses and other key data to advise that person about what's in front of them and what they should do. If you work with qualified financial experts, make sure their contact information is included.
6. Easy access to essentials under lock and key. If you're away from home when damage occurs or if family members need to access vehicles or other spaces, make sure you have keys and access codes locked safely in your emergency kit. You will also want to ensure that your emergency contacts have the necessary access to your emergency kit in order to retrieve these materials. You or loved ones might also need access to funds, particularly cash in an emergency. If you don't have a bank account established strictly for emergencies that allows specific family members to write checks or make cash withdrawals, you should consider it.
Bottom line: Building a financial emergency kit requires some planning, but it can help you avoid major losses and speed up decision making, especially during uncertain times with like pandemics. Work with people you trust to make it accessible and useful to your family and trusted individuals.