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SECURE PLAN FOR DOCUMENTS EASES STORM-RELATED STRESS

With hurricane season under way, readers are asking which financial records to take along if they have to evacuate.

"There are so many documents important in one's life," one reader lamented. "To develop a list seems overwhelming."

I envisioned him trying to jam a file cabinet into the back seat of his car. Let me suggest a more reasonable approach: Divide your important papers into two categories, those you might need during or immediately after a hurricane, and those you would not need until later. You can take those in the first category with you when you evacuate, but you should come up with an alternative plan now to safeguard the rest.

Take along: credit and ATM cards; checkbook; driver's license; medical insurance cards; and a piece of paper on which you have written account numbers and telephone contact numbers for insurance policies and all your financial accounts, including bank, brokerage and credit cards. You'll also want to have written down the names and phone numbers of close family members, your medical history and prescription information. Keep everything together in a plastic bag.

Safeguard, but don't try to take with you: tax returns and supporting documents for the past six years; investment records; deeds and mortgages; proof of payment on debts, wills, trusts, insurance policies; family history records (including certificates of birth, death, marriage, divorce); your most special family photos; a home inventory; purchase records and warranties for expensive items; plus any other papers you really couldn't live without.

Here are my suggestions for keeping them safe:

- Do you need an original? When a copy won't do (as with passports and stock certificates) and a replacement would be expensive or difficult to get, a safe-deposit box is the best choice.

- Are you computer savvy? Scan items and save everything to your computer hard drive. You can make a backup copy by saving files to CDs or to a portable USB drive you can stash in your safe-deposit box or send to a friend for safekeeping. Take a copy with you when you evacuate if you are sure you can keep it secure. Another alternative is to upload your digital files to photo and document-storage Web sites so you'll be able to access them no matter where you are.

- Are you strictly low-tech? Make copies of everything you want to safeguard, then put them in a notebook or box and deliver them for safekeeping to a trusted friend or relative who lives somewhere less hurricane-prone and who has extra storage space.

Don't forget an inventory. Photos or videos of your home can help you remember what you owned if you have to file an insurance claim. If you've got the time to assemble one, a written list is very helpful. IRS Publication 584 can get you started. If you have purchase records or appraisals of expensive items, keep them with your list.

Question: I have some stock I would like to sell. How can I go about this? It's up now and I would like to take advantage of this price.

Answer: Open a brokerage account. Call several brokers and ask about their account fees and what the commission would be to sell your shares.

Question: A stock I own has "lf" next to it in the New York Stock Exchange table. What does that mean?

Answer: The letters stand for "late filing." It means the company has missed one or more deadlines for filing reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Helen Huntley writes about investing and markets for the Times. If you have a question about investments or personal finance, write hhuntley@sptimes.com or Helen Huntley, Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. Read more questions and answers at blogs.tampabay.com/money.

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