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Find or Replace Your Loved One’s Missing Documents

How to get certified copies of vital records

Two peopl's hands organizing financial paperwork at a desk

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En español | Being a family caregiver requires both the left and right sides of the brain — the logical and the imaginative, but you’ll save yourself time and stress if you start the job with a left-side project. Find, replace and organize the documents you’ll almost certainly need in the course of care.

One job, two parts:

l. Find or replace care recipient’s life documents.

II. Make sure advance directives and powers of attorney are completed.

Part I - Find or replace government-issued certificates, records and decrees.

A single passport can carry you around the world, but the caregiving journey can require the documents your loved one began accruing on the first day of life. Why? Different situations require different documents. A marriage license may be needed to claim spousal pension benefits. Divorce papers to ensure an ex is not an automatic beneficiary. Military service records entitle a soldier to veterans benefits.

Step 1

Begin the search by asking the person in your care, “Where do you keep your important papers?”

If the answer is “at home,” but your loved one can’t recall exactly where, launch a scavenger hunt. Remember that people tend to put important papers in places they view as important — desk drawers, a file cabinet, a particular box, a family bible. Some store them with other rarely needed belongings. Check the attic, basement, closet shelves.

If the answer is, “in a safe-deposit box,” take your loved one, and the safe-deposit box key, to the bank.

  • Inventory and record the contents together. Take this list with you.
  • The box holder should add a trusted second person to the account. The assigned person can then deposit and retrieve contents. Should your loved one die without a second name on the account, state law may require a court order or a certified death certificate to open the box before probate is completed.
  • Do not leave funeral instructions or a cemetery plot deed in the safe-deposit box.

Step 2

Find or replace legal records and certificates. Click on each applicable, missing document below to order a certified copy or replacement card.

Do this now so you will have them when you need them. Processing can take several weeks.

Birth, death, marriage and divorce certificates are on file in the state in which the event happened. The charge for the service varies by state. Go here to find your state/county Office of Vital Records and order a certified copy of a:

  • Birth certificate
  • Marriage certificate
  • Divorce certificate
  • Death certificate

Part II – Secure advance directives.

Make sure these must-haves are signed and reflect your loved one’s current wishes.

Go to AARP’s advance directive forms and click on the state in which your loved one resides for living will and medical power of attorney forms. In some states both legal directives are combined into one form.

The person for whom you are caring should assign a trusted relative or friend — and an alternate — to serve as financial representative. The assigned person can pay bills and make specific purchases. If there is not enough money to cover living expenses, the person is in a position to help the care recipient apply for government assistance such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

When assigning financial power of attorney, it is best to consult a lawyer or legal aid services.

What’s left? Organize your loved one’s financial records and current finances. It will make your life easier. We promise.

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