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.

More about...Administration

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