Your Official Documents and Their Benefits

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Your Official Documents

You have probably already found out that there is a bit of official business you have to take care of in order to function smoothly in our society. The few paper documents that you should obtain now are just the beginning of many paper valuables you will collect in your lifetime. You will need to decide how you can best protect them, so you won’t have to experience the waste of time and the inconvenience of replacing everything unnecessarily.

Safe Spot

Try to keep everything together. If you decide to keep your papers at home, you can create an “Important Papers” file or folder. In an emergency, it is more likely you could locate your file quickly, than all the separate things it should contain. An accordion-type file folder, a plastic document pouch file, or even a manilla envelope, will keep everything contained and organized. 

Better yet is a strongbox, which is a fire-proof box designed to survive most fires. They are available at office supply and discount stores. You can also put other valuables in your box. Where to put the box becomes another concern, since you want to make it as difficult as possible to be stolen. 

As you gain more valuables and obtain more important documents, you may wish to consider getting a safe-deposit box at your bank.

If you are lucky enough to find a bank that offers a free safe-deposit box with a free or low-fee checking or savings account, sign up! The following is a sample list of what your safe-deposit box or strongbox may eventually include:

Paper Valuables

  • Birth certificate, original or certified copy
  • Contracts
  • Diplomas
  • Home inventory, including receipts for big purchases and appraisals
  • Insurance policies, with customer service phone numbers
  • Legal contracts or documents such as marriage or divorce papers
  • Master list of your financial accounts and credit card numbers, with the customer service phone number of each provider
  • Military papers
  • Naturalization papers
  • Passport
  • Savings bonds
  • Social Security card
  • Title to your car, deeds, or other records of ownership

Your Will

Whether you want to or not, at some point, you need to prepare your will. There are strict rules concerning wills, and it is best to do a little research before you start. You need to keep your will updated as you acquire more assets. When you have children, you should name in your will who you desire to be their guardians. (Don’t let it be a surprise. Be sure to talk it over beforehand with the person(s) you select). 

Please remember your original will is the one thing that does not belong in your safe-deposit box. Most states seal (limit access to) your safe-deposit box at the time of death. Original wills should ideally be left in the care of a law office. You can keep your original will in a safe spot at home, but you may also wish to give it to a trusted friend or family member, especially one with a safe-deposit box!

Birth Certificate

Obtaining this document first will make acquiring other documents you may need a lot easier. You should have at least one certified copy of your birth certificate. This differs from a regular copy in that it has an official stamp or certification. Birth certificates are kept by the county of the state where you were born. 

Check the phone book or directory assistance for the number of the Office of Vital Statistics. The offices that keep the records are listed under various names nationwide but generally fall under the jurisdiction of the Health Department. Fees for each copy vary. To obtain your birth certificate online, visit the National Center for Health Statistics website, www.cdc.gov/nchs.

Your Mail

The U.S. Postal Service delivers over 170 billion pieces of mail every year, yet it can still provide you with individual service, such as holding your mail upon request. Small towns may only have one post office, but larger cities may have several. Your post office is the one that handles your zip code. 

This is the office where you would pick up anything that the mail carrier was unable to deliver to your address, such as a registered letter or package that required a signature and you were not available when the carrier attempted delivery. It is not necessarily the post office closest to where you live. 

Your post office is also the office that will hold your mail when needed. Just fill out the appropriate form from the post office and your mail will be held on the dates you request. You can indicate on the form if you are going to pick it up or if you want it all delivered to your address on a specific date. 

When you fill out a change of address card, your first-class mail will be forwarded to your new address. Make sure you notify everyone who sends you mail of your new address. Magazines usually need six to eight weeks notice before the change becomes effective. Most post offices also provide many other services as well, such as selling money orders and handling passport applications.

Identification Cards

Photo Identification

This usually takes the form of a drivers license. If you do not drive for any reason, it is still possible to get official photo identification from your local Department or Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Call your local office to find out what the requirements are.

Driver’s License

This falls under the state’s jurisdiction where you live, and requirements vary from state to state. Remember to keep the address on your license current. You will also need to get a new driver’s license if you change your state of residence.

Social Security Card

You can’t go very long without having your own Social Security number. Hospitals provide applications for numbers to parents of newborns. Chances are your parents obtained your number for you when you were very young in order to declare you as a dependent on their income tax. 

If you do not yet have a Social Security number, visit the Social Security Administration’s website, socialsecurity.gov. There you can download an application and determine the documents you’ll need to accompany your application to prove your identity, age, and citizenship or lawful alien status. 

All documents will need to be either originals or copies certified by the issuing agency. You can also check the site for your nearest Social Security office location where you can apply in person for your card.

The Social Security system has been in effect since 1935 to help provide old age benefits to retired workers and their dependents and to help provide for the disabled. The Social Security Administration (SSA) identifies you and tracks your lifetime earnings by the number they issue to you. 

Your employers need to know your correct number as does the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). It is very important to protect the privacy of your number. Identity theft is one of the fastest-growing crimes in America. It’s real and can be a nightmare. One example of identity theft is if someone uses your Social Security number to obtain a credit card in their name. This misuse can potentially ruin your good credit record.

Protect your Social Security number. Make it your policy not to automatically give out your number, but to consider every request carefully and be selective about who receives it. For instance, your bank needs to know your number to report interest earned on your accounts to the IRS, but a local business can identify you by some other means. 

You should always ask why your number is needed, how it will be used and what will happen if you refuse. The answers to these questions can help you decide if you want to give out your number. Use your best judgment here. Release the number only when absolutely necessary and make sure you never have your Social Security number printed on your bank checks.

  • To ensure you are credited with your correct earnings, be sure you notify the SSA if you change your name. You will need to show proof both of your old name and your new name. You will get a new card in your new name with your old number.
  • If you are 18 years of age or older, you can use a “My Social Security” account on the SSA website to get your Social Security Statement. This report estimates your retirement, disability, and survivors benefits; shows your earnings record and the estimated Social Security and Medicare taxes you’ve paid.
  • Memorize your number and keep the card in a safe place. While you normally should not carry it in your wallet where it can easily be lost or stolen, do not rely on your memory for furnishing the number on important documents, such as those involving your employment.
  • Don’t use your number’s last four digits as your secret PIN (Personal Identification Number) on any of your financial accounts.
  • Shred any document that has your Social Security number on it before you throw it away.
  • Call the SSA at 800.772.1213 or visit the SSA website if you have any questions or if you would like the address of your local Social Security office and its hours of operation.

Passport

A passport is only a necessity if you are planning to travel out of the country. Otherwise, it is just an excellent source of identification and a comfort to know you have in case an unexpected opportunity arises; then you’re ready to go. You can apply for your passport at many post offices, county/municipal offices, and federal and state courts. 

Passports come under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of State; Bureau of Consular Affairs. For complete information, including a list of the documents you need to submit and the location of a passport agency or acceptance facility near you, call the National Passport Information Center at 877.487.2778, or visit the U.S Department of State’s Travel.State.Gov website. Generally, you will need:

  1. Form DS-11: Application for Passport. You may pick the form up at the facility and return it later, but you must sign this form in person at the passport acceptance facility.
  2. Proof of U.S. Citizenship. Proof could be your certified birth certificate or your naturalization certificate.
  3. Proof of Identity. Such proof could be a current, valid drivers license or current school ID card.
  4. The Fee. The current fee is listed on the application. Depending on how and where you apply, the accepted payment methods vary, so be sure to find out ahead of time.
  5. One Passport Photograph. The photo must be recent, in colour, printed on photo quality paper and 2 x 2 in size. Check the U.S. Department of State’s Travel.State.Gov website for additional requirements.

The State Department recommends applying for your passport several months before your departure date. Your passport will be mailed to the address you put on the application, about 25 days after your application is received. It is possible to get your passport issued faster, but you must pay an additional fee to expedite the process.

The Department of State also issues the U.S. Passport Card as a less expensive alternative to the traditional passport book. However, the card cannot be used for travel by air. It is valid for land and sea crossings between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda.

Registration Documents

Vehicle Registration

The Department or Bureau of Motor Vehicles is also where you register your vehicle. There is a fee to pay every year to keep your registration current. Depending on your state’s requirements, you may be asked to present verification that your vehicle meets your state’s emission standards. You will be told if you need the certification when you register and where you can obtain it.

If you sell or give away your vehicle, it is very important to immediately complete the necessary paperwork with the Department or Bureau of Motor Vehicles. The transaction record must be on file with your state, so in the event of an accident, parking tickets, or other law infractions by the new owners, you are free from liability.

Vehicle Title

A title to a car is the document that shows ownership. If you buy a car and pay cash for it, you will receive the title, which you must take to your local title office and have recorded. If you get a loan from a bank to buy the car, the title has a lien placed on it from the bank. When the loan is paid off, the lien is removed, and you receive a clear title. You may also record a change in the title when you change states and register your car in your new state. If you do not know where to record titles in your area, call your local Department or Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

Voter Registration

If you want to vote in any election, generally you must register in advance. Call your local Board of Elections to find out what identification you need to bring with you when you register.

Hint: Visit www.USA.gov, the U.S. government’s official web portal, when you need answers to a government-related question. It’s a great place to start a search for official government listings, services, and other related resources with a wide range of topics.

Other Licenses and Permits

When I moved from a large city to a small town, I was very surprised to find out I needed a permit to hold a garage sale. Every state, city, and town has different laws and ordinances, and it’s a good idea to find out what is required in your area before the event. When in doubt, check with local officials on things such as:

Licenses and Permits

  • Bikes of any kind
  • Block parties
  • Building or remodelling
  • Burning (leaves, yard waste, construction waste, trash, etc.)
  • Conducting a business in your home
  • Dogs; farm, exotic, or other animals
  • Fishing
  • Guns
  • Hunting
  • Marriage
  • Sales of any kind (garage, yard, tag, bake, book, etc.)
  • Street and/or overnight parking (especially of recreational vehicles)

Record Keeping

You may earn money without having money taken out for taxes. This does not mean you do not have to consider it income. You do! If you have income from a source such as your own small business, your recordkeeping should be especially detailed. Save receipts for everything, and don’t be careless with any documentation.

  • Federal personal income tax returns must be filed every year by mid-April, usually the 15th. Filing your own return may not be too difficult or too time-consuming, but it really helps to be prepared for the job. Do yourself a big favour and keep accurate records from the beginning of your earning history. Create a system to keep everything together. You need to keep documentation of any income, such as your current cumulative pay stub, and documentation of any deductions you may claim, such as cancelled checks and receipts. You may receive a W-2 form from your employer. This should be provided to you no later than January 31st of the current year. You will also receive Form 1099 from your financial institution if you have interest or dividends that have been reported to the IRS.
  • Order IRS Publication number 552—Recordkeeping for Individuals. It explains exactly which records you should have and how long to keep them. Hang on to everything for at least three years (seven years if you want to be absolutely sure). Normally, if you are going to be audited (this is when the IRS takes a closer look at your return), it would be before the time limit (period or statute of limitations) for the return expires. Keep in mind that the statute of limitations does not apply if you have filed a fraudulent return or did not file when you were required to do so.
  • There are plenty of resources available to help you with your taxes, including the IRS, which will try to answer any questions you may have. The number of IRS assistance is 800.829.1040.
  • Tax schedules are separate forms that may need to be filed along with your return. Visit the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) website to request or view tax schedules, forms and/or publications online. Forms can be downloaded, faxed, or mailed. Common forms, publications and tax schedules may also be available at your local tax office, post office, or library.
  • Online and software tax programs are designed to help make filing your year-end return easy and accurate. You might want to check out the free programs at TaxAct and TurboTax and the IRS Free File information.
  • If you decide you cannot figure your taxes yourself and want professional help, ask around for referrals from people you know who have had successful tax preparers’ experiences. If you must pay someone to do your taxes, make sure you do as much as possible ahead of time. You do not want to pay an accountant by the hour to categorize receipts and add up totals that you can do yourself.
  • Do not forget about your state taxes. You must figure out your federal return first, then your state return. These forms are also available at your local post office, library, or tax office.
  • Make and keep a copy of every tax return (local, state, and federal) you file. They may be useful in helping you prepare future tax returns or if you need to amend (change) a return you have already filed. Tax returns are sometimes requested when applying for loans.

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