How to replace six vital documents

Could you produce your birth certificate, car title, or an old tax return at a moment’s notice?

You’re supposed to store vital documents in a fireproof box or keep them in a safe-deposit box, but how many of us actually do that? We may not need these papers often, but when we do need them, we really need them. You need vital documents to sell your car, travel overseas, apply for a job, get through an audit, refinance your house, and more.

The good news is that if you’ve lost important pieces of paper, you can replace them — and it might be easier than you think. Here’s how to replace six of the most important documents in your life.

Birth Certificate

You need a birth certificate for everything from enrolling in school to getting a marriage license (if you don’t have a passport). To replace one for yourself or your child, go to the vital statistics office website for the state where the birth occurred. You might need a photo ID, and you’ll need to provide as much of the following information as you can:

  • Name
  • Birth date
  • Gender
  • Parents’ names
  • Place of birth

Replacing a birth certificate costs $10-$20, depending on the state.

Social Security Card

A Social Security card can be required for a number of things, such as applying for a job or enrolling in college. Sometimes you only need the number, but other times you might be asked to produce the card. To replace it, contact your local Social Security office. You’ll fill out an application form, and you’ll need one of the following forms of ID:

  • U.S. driver’s license
  • State-issued, non-driver identification card
  • U.S. passport

Plus one of the following proofs of citizenship:

  • U.S. birth certificate
  • U.S. consular report
  • U.S. passport
  • Certificate of Naturalization
  • Certificate of Citizenship

There’s no fee for a replacement card, and you are limited to three replacement cards in a year and 10 during your lifetime. For security reasons, it’s recommended that you go to your local Social Security office in person instead of mailing in the application and ID document.


You need a passport to travel abroad, but it’s also handy to have for identification purposes should you lose your driver’s license. If your passport has been lost or stolen, you’ll need to report it by calling 1-877-487-2778. Then, go to a passport agency or acceptance facility in your area and bring the following two completed forms:

You’ll also need to bring identification and proof of citizenship (see list for Social Security replacement above for acceptable forms of proof) and two passport photos. Renewing an adult passport costs $140.

If you need the passport in less than two weeks for an upcoming trip, you can contact the National Passport Information Center to make an appointment at a local passport agency.

Property Deed

If you sell or refinance your house or property or transfer the title, you need to show proof of ownership in the form of a property deed. Try the following ways to get a copy (and have the address and tax map ID number handy):

  1. Contact the attorney who handled the closing to see if he or she has a copy.
  2. Call the county clerk’s office, where deeds are typically recorded.
  3. Hire a title company to search for it.

The first two methods are cheap, usually costing a small fee for photocopies. Hiring a title company can run $100-$150, but can yield a more complete search.

Car Title

Hoping to sell your car? You’re going to need the title. Contact your state’s department of motor vehicles. You’ll need the following:

  • Application form
  • Fee (varies by state)
  • ID, such as a driver’s license

You’ll also need proof of ownership, such as your license plate number and vehicle identification number or your vehicle registration.

Tax Returns

To get tax returns from previous years, start by contacting your accountant or tax preparer, who should keep copies of your returns. You also can get copies directly from the IRS by filling out form 4506, Request for Copy of Tax Return. There’s a $57 fee per tax year requested.

For more information about replacing these and other documents, visit the this guide, complete with inventory worksheets, to get the ball rolling.

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There are 29 comments to "How to replace six vital documents".

  1. Antti-Juhani Kaijanaho says 23 August 2010 at 04:23

    How is possession of “license plate number and vehicle identification number” proof of ownership? Doesn’t a thief have ready access to such information?

  2. Nicole says 23 August 2010 at 05:13

    I have had to do too many of these to admit.

    Ehow guides tend to be very useful for these and other kinds of oops last minute mistakes.

  3. Edward - Entry Level Dilemma says 23 August 2010 at 05:34

    Any ideas for finding your selective service registration number? I threw my card out years ago because, even if a draft were reinstated, I wouldn’t make it through the medical. But now, after college, I’m looking to start my career and some of the jobs I’m interested in are with the federal government which requires proof that I registered with the selective service.

  4. J.D. says 23 August 2010 at 05:49

    I’ve lived without one of these vital documents for most of my life. When I was in college, I did a lot of stupid things (as I’ve confessed many times). One of those stupid things is that I used to leave my wallet in the glove box of my car. Worked great! I never forgot it. Then, one day in 1989, I went out to my car to discover it had been broken into and my wallet stolen. My plan no longer seemed so smart.

    A couple of weeks later, I got a package in the mail. It contained my wallet. Everything was there except my cash (which probably amounted to six dollars), my credit card (which I had already reported stolen), and my social security card. “Why would anyone take my social security card?” I wondered. (I now know many reasons to steal that card.)

    I didn’t know how or where to replace the SS card, so I didn’t. A few years later (in 1994), Kris and I were buying a house. In order to apply for a mortgage, the broker wanted my social security card. I told him I didn’t have one. He told me he would take care of getting me a replacement card, and asked for all sorts of personal info. I never did get the replacement card, and I have no idea what he did with the info I gave him.

    Anyhow, in the 20+ years since I lost my SS card, the only time I’ve ever been asked for it was applying for my first mortgage. I’ve never needed it since. I’ve often thought of figuring out how to replace it, but have never acted on this thought. Maybe now I will. 🙂

  5. Chris at says 23 August 2010 at 05:49

    Who keeps vital documents in a safe deposit box? I do! I do! Because of the type of bank accounts we have, our bank provides a free one for us.

    But since I can’t keep my driver’s license there, I keep losing it! oye. Twice now in the past couple of years.

  6. Michiel says 23 August 2010 at 05:54

    If your documents are stolen, these steps may be necessary. For all other purposes, I find that making proper scans/photos and storing these at a secure off-site location works best. My bank actually offers this as a service: you can store 5 mb of data for free, secured like your bank records. I have copies in here of these documents, marriage documentation and a copy of my photo’s of the house inventory (especially all book shelves with enough detail to read titles). In case of fire or items you know you have but can’t find quickly, I can always securely recover the information I need.

  7. Colleen says 23 August 2010 at 06:33

    Edward, you can get that on the SSA website: (I work at a University and my male student employees have to provide proof of Selective Service registration).

  8. aerosmith says 23 August 2010 at 06:35

    Good information. How come you did not consider a university degree certificate that you earned as one of the important documents?

  9. Techbud says 23 August 2010 at 06:49

    Fire proof box is a must if you don’t have a safe deposit box. It helps keep all docs in one place and easy to find when you need them.

  10. Money Reasons says 23 August 2010 at 06:50

    I have all that you list above except a Passport.

    Thinking about it now, I can see where a Passport would be of great value to have. I think I will look into purchasing one for my entire family!!!

  11. Rob Ward says 23 August 2010 at 07:15

    @ J.D. that is pretty funny because I lost my SS card a few years back as well. I keep thinking about needing to replace it but have never needed it. Not only that but I didn’t feel like figuring out how to do so. Thanks April for letting me know!

    Oh and I do actually have my passport and birth certificate in a fireproof safe at home, although not my tax returns.

  12. Heather says 23 August 2010 at 08:00

    If you are going to the trouble to order replacement birth certificates or marriage licenses (especially by mail), go ahead and get two or three copies. We have multiple sets and keep one set of originals at home and another set in our safety deposit box.

  13. momcents says 23 August 2010 at 08:24

    I keep all documents listed here in a safe deposit box except for the tax returns. Maybe I’ll go ahead and stick my tax returns in there next time I’m at the bank. It sounds like it would be one less hassle in case of an emergency.

  14. Diana says 23 August 2010 at 08:50

    This is timely advice for my family because just last week we realized my husband’s social security card is missing. (The reason we were looking for it is because we are filing for unclaimed property–which we found after using the links in another Get Rich Slowly article!). Thanks for this, April!

  15. Jessica says 23 August 2010 at 09:52

    It’s funny how I always place my important documents in a safe place, but, when I need it, I can’t find it.

  16. Brent says 23 August 2010 at 11:06

    I had to replace my SS card a few years ago due to it being torn. What I found interesting during the replacement process is that you are limited to three replacement cards in a year and 10 during your lifetime.

  17. babysteps says 23 August 2010 at 11:08

    Funny SS card story, before I was married my SS card was one of the few things I didn’t lose…which means it was from 2nd grade when I opened a savings acct (thanks Dad!).

    Some document I was signing (real estate closing?) once asked for “your signature as it appears on your Social Security Card” – that was a chuckle.

    I decided that they meant my signature of the name on my SS card, not an actual facsimile of my 2nd grade printed name (I hadn’t even learned cursive yet). And I haven’t seen that same “as it appears” instruction since.

  18. Ben P says 23 August 2010 at 14:35

    re: Car titles

    “How is possession of “license plate number and vehicle identification number” proof of ownership? Doesn’t a thief have ready access to such information?”

    The DMV will check your ID against the prior ownership of the car. As long as the title was properly transferred from the prior owner and you’ve been registering the car properly, you’ve got no problem.

    On the other hand, if you own the car “off the books,” or did an off the record transaction, you’ll have to present more significant documentation before you can get a title issued.

  19. EscapeVelocity says 23 August 2010 at 15:25

    Also useful to have a list at home of what’s in the safe deposit box. I say this because I really don’t know whether my social security card is there or not.

  20. PDX says 23 August 2010 at 17:49

    Instead of requesting a copy of your tax return for $57, you can request your tax return transcript for free:

    I do this every year so I know what the IRS records show. Of course, I already have pdf copies of me e-files.

  21. Bryan says 23 August 2010 at 18:39

    Interesting article. One trend I’m noticing though is that you’ll need photo ID such as your license to get most of these documents back. As a conundrum, you need a few of these documents to get a license.

    While I do keep my documents in a fire safe, I’d think there has to be some loop-hole in the event you lose all these documents at once in the case of a fire, natural disaster or the like.

    • Melissa Potter says 06 June 2012 at 09:54

      I realize it was some time ago that you left a comment. I have found myself needing to replace all my documents. I wanted to ask if you have any information on how to get new documents? I appreciate any help or information you can provide for me.
      Thank You,
      Melissa Potter

  22. Annie says 23 August 2010 at 20:53

    Wow! Great tips! I need to use the one on the birth certificate!

  23. Chetan says 24 August 2010 at 01:59

    Haven’t folks here heard of a scanner? As soon as you get a vital document like this, scan it in color and store it on your hard disk. Once you’ve got all of them scanned, burn the files into a CD and store the original document away into a safe-deposit box.

    Store the CD at home or under lock and key in the office and you now have instant access to a copy of your important documents at hand – anytime.

    Most places (including real estate banker) will accept a copy of the SSN card in lieu of the original.

  24. Colleen says 24 August 2010 at 06:05

    @Bryan — there aren’t loop holes most places. It’s one of the reason homeless people who have lost their identification have such a nightmare getting help.

  25. Wendy says 24 August 2010 at 06:35

    NY and PA both require the Social Security Card to apply for a driver’s license. Relatively new requirement – maybe other states as well. I’m older than dirt and hadn’t needed my SS card in decades -until now. Fortunately the card is easy to replace – though they say there is a lifetime maximum of ten. Entertaining to consider why you would need to replace it ten times…

  26. abby says 24 August 2010 at 08:47

    I thought I had lost my driver’s license a couple of years ago, so I went to the DMV to get a new one and was presented with a form that I needed to have notarized in order to report the license stolen and get a new one. The catch? The notary wanted to see my license for ID verification before she’d notarize the form.

    Luckily, I found my license two days later.

  27. pen says 24 August 2010 at 10:57

    a friend had all his id’s stolen a few years ago, it was a major hassle to get his drivers licence replaced. i think he had to call his parents for a copy of his birth certificate before any of the id’s were replaced.

  28. JB says 25 August 2010 at 06:32

    I’ve volunteered in a homeless program that helps the homeless (without any ID) get IDs (which, post-911, is a royal PITA). The steps our folks took (and this was in Alabama, so YMMV), were:

    1. Get their birth certificate. This could be done with no ID if they could go in person. If they were born out-of-state, we applied by mail, and sometimes had to bend the rules a little.

    2. Get their Social Security printout (our SS office charged for a replacement card, but the printout was free & functioned as an ID). All they needed was a birth certificate (which is good, since that’s all they had).

    3. A third form of ID. This was the…ahem…fun step, but you’d be surprised how many things can function as ID. Probably the most common were marriage licenses and divorce certificates (obtained just like a birth certificate, on the same form, actually). Other useful third-forms are court orders, felon IDs, insurance cards, letters from one’s school on a school letterhead, military IDs, and other things along those lines.

    I guess the most important lessons are that things aren’t as set in stone as April makes them out to be (YMMV significantly by state or even by the clerk you happen to get at the DMV) and that getting ID without ID is definitely possible, if you know what you’re doing.

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