This last weekend, I had the rare treat of the house entirely to myself (if you discount the four dogs and three cats, obviously). For some strange reason, the advent of some unscheduled time combined with the frosty nip in the air and the sight of leaves turning to autumn colours always inspires a passionate need to dejunk. Not poetic, I know, but true.
Because one of the most painful parts of expat life is the extraordinary amount of paperwork it produces, and the constantly changing evidentiary demands of cross-border family life. Those of you who have recently endured the school registration process will sympathize…
My grand (and as it turns out, wildly overambitious) plan was to clear the decks over the course of the two days. Twenty four hours and six bags of shredded paper later, I had only done half the bedroom. In my defence, the bulk of the paper archives are stored in my bedside cabinet, but still.
It was a harsh reminder of just how quickly things can become overwhelming, and how difficult it would be to try and locate a critical piece of paper in those moments of desperation and panic that are a part and parcel of real life. And as someone who had to request a copy of her birth certificates and undergo a painful round of duplicate vaccinations just to start the Green Card application, I am painfully aware of how expat life does not set us up for documentary simplicity. Bank accounts in different locations and currencies, school records up the wazoo, and don’t get me started on cross border pensions, healthcare and tax filings.
Here’s the thing: apart from tax preparation, I handle pretty much all the paperwork and administration in this house, regardless of whose name is on the envelope. Despite this – and my well known obsession with setting the records straight – there were a few surprises. Premium bonds that had been bought for my husband and children by grandparents, life insurance policies (albeit small) that were part of a bank account bonus, old bank accounts for the kids and in a very dusty and forgotten corner, the codicils to our wills, long since lost and replaced, at significant expense. All in all, there were about $10,000 worth of details that I had no proper, readily available record of if our home burned down tomorrow. Sobering, indeed.
It reminded me why I created the Family File, and why if you don’t already have one, creating one needs to be a priority.
It’s based on one of the pivotal concepts of the legal world – evidence. And if you can’t produce it when you need it, you have no control over the outcome.
The vast majority of what we do on a day to day basis requires some sort of proof – of our legal right to reside, to drive a car, for our children to go to school – even to access our amazon shopping cart. The information demanded varies from the most mundane 4 digit passcode on our phone to the complex alphanumeric code on our passports. Regardless of what form it takes, without it, permissions are abruptly denied. And typically, at the least helpful moment.
Here’s where having your details and documents collated help – because even if the originals are lost, you have enough information to access accounts, apply for replacements or find help as and when you need it. It’s an operations manual for the most important project you will ever run – making expat life simpler, safer and saner.
So, I’ve finally get round to sharing it. It was lovingly put together (yes, you know how much I idolise checklists) over the last two years and then professionally polished by the awesome Erin. It’s created specifically for expat life, but applies just as much to those who never intend to move again, so don’t let that stop you from creating one.