How To

How to digitally back up and secure important legal documents

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You probably have many important legal documents. It’s easy to back these documents up in a digital format and store them securely.

Everyone has many important legal documents. You may have contracts, statements, leases, wills, and other documents that you need to protect; losing these documents could lead to serious consequences. More and more, these documents are provided in digital format, and you may choose to scan important paper documents.

It is essential that you store and back up these digital documents securely so no one can access them without your permission. Let’s explore how to do so.

(Related article: How to digitize your old family photos and paper documents)

Which documents you need to protect

We can become overwhelmed by documents that deal with our lives and our finances. Many of these documents are temporary, such as bank statements and insurance policies. But others have longer-term consequences and need to be protected. Things like a will, property deeds, birth certificates, and tax returns must be stored securely, yet be available when we need them.

You can usually get access to your bank statements online, on-demand. However, it’s a good idea to keep your own archive of them for tax purposes, because some banks only provide online access to statements for a few years, and charge for copies after that.

Many insurance policies and rental agreements renew annually; in some cases, you might need to worry less about archiving those. However, it’s still a good idea to keep a copy of the latest version of such documents.

You should archive tax returns and supporting documents for several years. Different countries and states may have different retention policies; the U.S. IRS recommends that, for most people, three years of records is sufficient (though there are some exceptions). In the UK, HMRC says that you should keep documents for six years.

Your most important documents are your will, a living will if you have one, any power of attorney document, property deeds, marriage certificates, divorce certificates, and birth certificates, of you and your children. You should also secure documents regarding investments, estate planning, and any employment contracts or military records if you are a veteran. It can be useful to scan all of these documents and securely store their digital versions. (See our related article about how to digitize paper documents.)

There may be other documents that you’ll want to back up as well. These are just a few examples; it’s a good idea to seek legal and financial experts’ advice.

How to protect and secure important legal documents

Your important legal documents should be:

  • Encrypted
  • Protected with strong passwords
  • Protected with two-factor authentication, if possible

Encrypted hard drives

Encrypting your documents is essential. This doesn’t mean that each document should be individually encrypted; rather, you should store them in some sort of encrypted container. With a Mac, there are two ways you can do this.

You can store documents on an external drive, which you encrypt using the Disk Utility app on your Mac. Whenever you connect this drive to a device, you will have to enter the password for the disk. It’s worth noting that you can connect an encrypted drive to an iPhone or iPad, so it’s a good idea to get a drive that uses USB-C, which is the connection method on all current iPads, and on iPhones from the 15 onward. You can get an external, self-powered SSD for around $100.

It’s best to use at least two external USB-C drives and store them in safes or safe deposit boxes. The worry is less about theft than about damage; if your house is damaged in a fire, flood, or other natural disaster, you don’t want all of your copies of important files to be destroyed and unrecoverable. Thus, an off-site backup is critically important.

Encrypted disk images

Another method is to use an encrypted disk image. You also use Disk Utility to create this. It is a file that acts as a container, or a mountable drive on your desktop; you might be familiar with disk images because many Mac apps are distributed this way (if you get them somewhere besides the App Store).

Just like with an encrypted hard drive, you set a password, which you need to enter when you mount the disk image. You can store these disk images on your Mac; if you have more than one Mac, it’s a good idea to copy them to all your devices. You can also upload it to any cloud storage service, such as iCloud, Dropbox, or OneDrive. Even if an employee, hacker, or law enforcement agent can access your documents on that service, the disk image will still be protected by strong encryption; nobody can access its contents without your password.

Strong passwords

It’s essential that your files are protected with strong passwords. If not, anyone who finds your external drive, or who gets access to your disk image, could potentially read your documents. Here are four tips for creating secure passwords, and four types of passwords you shouldn’t create.

The best way to generate and store strong passwords is to use a password manager. There are several password management apps you can use; for most Apple users, iCloud Keychain (Apple Passwords) is the easiest—and it’s free. It suggests strong passwords, stores them, and syncs across all your Apple devices, as well as on Windows PCs. With macOS Sequoia, iOS 18, and iPadOS 18, due out in the fall of 2024, a new Passwords app takes over from iCloud Keychain. It offers the same functionality in a standalone app.

It is also essential that someone else can access your documents in the event of your death.

Two-factor authentication

For extra protection, all your important accounts should be protected by two-factor authentication. This is especially important for your Apple Account, and any cloud service where you store your documents. Two-factor authentication requires that you enter your username, password, and a second factor—usually a six-digit code, but sometimes you authenticate on one of your devices—to ensure your identity. Only choose cloud storage services that offer two-factor authentication.

Backups and verification

For all backups, and especially for disks containing important documents, you should use the 3–2–1 backup strategy:

  • 3 copies of your data
  • 2 local copies on different storage types
  • 1 copy off-site

The recommendations earlier in this article take this into account. The three copies of your data could be one on a cloud server (and also mirrored on your Mac), another on an external drive in a safe deposit box, and a third on an external drive in a safe at home. This actually gives you two copies off-site, though you should never count on the cloud storage as being reliable.

You should also verify your backups regularly. A good idea for important documents is to add a reminder in your calendar once a year—for example, near the end or beginning of the year, or perhaps around tax time—to verify your backups and update your documents.

It’s neither difficult nor expensive to organize a system to back up and secure your important legal documents. The most important thing to do is check your backups and update your documents each year, and keep multiple copies in different locations protected by strong passwords.

How can I learn more?

For more information about how to easily scan and digitize paper documents—without the need for a scanner—see our related article: How to digitize your old family photos and paper documents.

How to digitize your old family photos and paper documents

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About Kirk McElhearn

Kirk McElhearn writes about Apple products and more on his blog Kirkville. He is co-host of the Intego Mac Podcast, as well as several other podcasts, and is a regular contributor to The Mac Security Blog, TidBITS, and several other websites and publications. Kirk has written more than two dozen books, including Take Control books about Apple's media apps, Scrivener, and LaunchBar. Follow him on Twitter at @mcelhearn. View all posts by Kirk McElhearn →