How to organise important financial documents simply and safely

The summer months offer the perfect window to reorganise your paperwork and ensure it is being stored correctly

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 22 JULY 2020. Aideen Hopkins, Head of EER.. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Suzanne Clocke. Section: Business.
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With most people staying close to home rather than travelling overseas amid the global coronavirus pandemic, the summer could be the perfect time to declutter your home. But before you do a Marie Kondo and throw all your paperwork out, make sure you organise and file the important documents.

You may be itching to digitise all those yellowing scraps of curling paper but beware – there are many you still need to keep in paper format, according to Aideen Hopkins, head of business operations at Dubai-based relocation company Executive Expatriate Relocations (EER).

“While the UAE is becoming more reliant on e-channel services, in our experience – and although not environmentally friendly – we recommend clients have hard copies of documents available when doing any registrations in the UAE,” she says.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 22 JULY 2020. Aideen Hopkins, Head of EER.. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Suzanne Clocke. Section: Business.
Some documents need to be kept with you at all times in the UAE, such as your Emirates ID, says Aideen Hopkins of EER. Antonie Robertson/The National

These include your passport and passport photos; an attested education certificate (only in its original form or the certified copy); certified birth and marriage certificates; health insurance; UAE residency; Emirates ID (original or copies of both front and back); driver’s licence; your signed lease agreement and its subsequent Ejari (for Dubai) or Tawtheeq (for Abu Dhabi) tenancy registration.

A surprisingly important document to hold on to in its original paper format is any receipt for a security deposit – for instance from your utility company. This may be needed, even many years later, when closing down the service “to avoid any issues in obtaining refunds”, Ms Hopkins says.

Some documents need to be kept with you at all times. In the UAE, for example, Ms Hopkins advises always carrying your Emirates ID wherever you go and your driving licence when driving. Other documents to keep in your wallet include a copy of your car registration card, as this is now done electronically, and your alcohol licence, if you have one.

If you’re moving to the UAE, make sure you bring important documents you will need to settle in (such as your attested education certificate, birth and marriage certificates) with you – don’t put them in your shipment, warns Ms Hopkins. “They can take weeks to arrive and delay the residency process,” she says.

For those exiting the UAE, when closing bank accounts, loans or credit cards, do request a clearance or “no liability” letters and keep them on file, says Ambareen Musa, founder and chief executive of Middle East comparison site Souqalmal.com. Hold on to the physical document in case of any “financial settlement disputes that may arise in the future”.

And double-check the account has been closed, warns Ms Hopkins from EER, otherwise you may get a letter months later advising you of ongoing maintenance fees being applied.

Also when leaving the UAE, Ms Hopkins recommends getting a police clearance certificate if needed (before you cancel your visa); transfer certificates from your children’s schools; copies of your medical records; visa cancellation papers; and immigration printout showing entry and exit from the country plus a certified bank statement for tax domicile certificates.

Here's a guide to the documents you need to keep hold of and the best way to store them:

Which documents to keep in the UAE – and for how long

The general rule of thumb for personal finance documents is to keep the original for at least at least five years and then to archive them for a further three says Shelina Jokhiya, founder of Dubai-based home and office organisation service Decluttr Me.

Documents to keep forever, according to Ms Jokhiya, are:

• Title deeds, property records, mortgages and bills of sale

• Life insurance paperwork

• Passports, birth, marriage and death certificates

• Share and bond certificates

Documents you should keep for one to 10 years:

• Home, medical and motor insurance policies – 10 years from expiry is the usual requirement – retain digitally after one year unless a claim has to be made under the policy

• Signed contracts – seven years from date of expiry

• Accident reports and claims – seven years from date of settlement

• Medical reports – seven years

• Sales receipts and warranties for major purchases, such as cars, furniture or appliances – seven years after sale of asset, in case of future insurance claims

• Business tax returns and overseas tax returns – three to six years

• Utility bills – one year

• Bank statements – one year

“Many banks retain the bank statements online to access for two years or more, so there is no need to print paper copies,” says Ms Jokhiya.

She also warns that although the standard period for keeping tax records in your home country – for the US or Canada, for example – is normally three years, this can be extended to six by the American Internal Revenue Service if it suspects a “substantial error”.

When it comes to other receipts, Ms Jokhiya says the returns policies in UAE shops can be “shockingly bad” so there is no need to keep them for longer than 30 days unless the receipt is also a warranty.

How to organise records

Ms Musa of Souqalmal.com recommends an email system of folders in your mailbox for bank accounts, loans and credit card statements, as well as for “regularly billed services” such as insurance, utilities and phone bills.

Ms Jokhiya of Decluttr Me advises buying a box file and ring binder, plus some coloured dividers for easy separation, for your paper-based filing system.

Don’t use plastic sheet protectors for important documents, she says, as they stick to the document and remove the ink after some time. “I have experienced this with my education certificates,” she warns.

Another tip for those using envelopes to file documents in a ring binder is to punch the holes into the empty envelopes first – not once those important documents are inside.

How to keep your documents safe

Documents that must be kept in paper form should ideally be stored in a fireproof safe, says Ms Jokhiya, and otherwise in a waterproof folder, which “can be accessed very quickly if you have to leave your home due to fire or flooding”.

Fireproof safes can be purchased from stores such as Ace Hardware, says Steve Cronin, founder of DeadSimpleSaving.com. As well as documents, keep anything “small enough and of high value” in there, such as passports, extra credit cards, old photos and wallets for your home country currency and cards.

The “extremely safety-conscious” could also consider hiring a safety deposit locker at a bank, Ms Musa adds.

When you’re ready to let important paper documents go, scan them for “historical record-keeping”, she says. And remember, simply “crumpling and tossing in the trash” won’t do.

“Scammers can very easily use the sensitive details in these documents, leaving you vulnerable to identity theft,” she warns. Destroy the documents by shredding them, she advises.

If you have a large amount to shred, adds Ms Jokhiya, use a service such as Shred-It to securely destroy them.

Prioritise the most important and scan them, says Mr Cronin, and store with a secure cloud service, which is “likely safer” than on a laptop or hard drive.

Even if it turns out that you do need the original, having an electronic version should “speed up replacement” and ensure you have the “exact details to hand”.

Ms Musa also advises setting up password protection on any electronic files to “create a first line of defence against cyberattacks”.

It may seem like a big job but it’s worth getting on top of all your paperwork in these fast-moving times, says Ms Hopkins.

“Your situation can change overnight,” she warns. “Once their visa is cancelled, many employees will have 30 days to exit the country, which may not give you a lot of time to close everything and tie up any lose ends.”