Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content
Content starts here
Leaving Website

You are now leaving and going to a website that is not operated by AARP. A different privacy policy and terms of service will apply.

You’ve Lost an Important Document. Now What?

How to proceed when you can’t find the paperwork you need

spinner image a magnifying glass finding a certain document
Getty Images

The word “paperwork” has become an anachronism; most legal and business documents today are created, signed and stored digitally. But a few actual pieces of paper remain vitally important to keep.

Many of these documents may be decades old. So if they get lost, how do you replace them? We break it down for you here:

spinner image Image Alt Attribute

AARP Membership— $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.

Join Now


To avoid becoming a victim of identity theft, be sure to report it lost or stolen. Call 877-487-2778 toll-free or submit a Form DS-64 online at Or you can print the form from that website and mail it to the U.S. State Department. To get a replacement passport, submit a Form DS-11 in person at a passport office. If this happens when you are traveling abroad, contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.

Birth certificate

Contact the vital records office in the state where you were born to order a replacement. If you were born overseas to American parents and they registered your birth with that country’s U.S. embassy or consulate, you can access a Consular Report of Birth Abroad copy from the State Department. If you were born on a military base abroad, you’ll need to contact the hospital where you were born.

Marriage certificate

Contact your state’s vital records office, which will direct you to the clerk of the county where the license was issued, or to an equivalent local office. They will inform you of the necessary documents to provide, the cost and whether the copy can be issued online, by mail or in person. Married abroad? Contact the embassy or consulate of the country where your marriage took place, and the staff will assist you in receiving a certified copy of the foreign marriage document. If you were married abroad before Nov. 9, 1989, and the wedding was witnessed by a U.S. consular officer, the State Department should also have documents on file confirming your marriage.

Social Security card

​First, consider whether you need a replacement. Storing the number safely may suffice, as you rarely need the physical card. A replacement should be obtained if you’re starting a new job or live in Pennsylvania, where you’ll need it to apply for a Real ID. To get a new Social Security card, you’ll need a birth certificate plus a driver’s license or a state-issued identification card, or simply a passport. Print and fill out an application on the Social Security website ( Then mail or take your application and original documents to your Social Security office (the website has information on locations). Replacing the card is free, so beware of service providers that attempt to charge a fee.

Home & Real Estate

ADT™ Home Security

Savings on monthly home security monitoring

See more Home & Real Estate offers >


Laws relating to estate planning differ across states, but in general: If your will was accidentally lost or destroyed, and not revoked, then it still represents your wishes. Upon your death, a copy of the will can be submitted to the court. However, you must have left behind clear evidence that you did not revoke it. This means evidence that it was accidentally destroyed or lost, or testimony from an impartial third party stating that you didn’t plan to change it. Your heirs will also need evidence that it’s a true copy, such as confirmations from the original witnesses or attorney.

Car title

The replacement process varies by state. Check with your Department of Motor Vehicles. In some states, it can be as simple as submitting a form. In others, you may need to submit documents such as your photo identification, a vehicle registration or registration renewal notice.

spinner image office cubicle with document storage places highlighted: drawers, file boxes, and computer

Where to Store Documents?

We asked financial and legal pros about the proper care and storage of official documents. In general, they say there are three levels of document importance, each having different storage and format needs:

Tier 1: Essential life documents

These documents require top-level care: Social Security card, passport, will, health care proxy, birth certificate, marriage certificate, car title, home deed, divorce papers, military discharge papers

Suggested storage: Fireproof safe or bank safe-deposit box

We think of safes as hulking units with a combination lock. But any locking box that is waterproof and fireproof provides secure storage for your most important documents. “If a document was in just a normal filing cabinet on the bottom shelf, that could very well be susceptible to weather-related issues,” says Nicole Gopoian Wirick of Prosperity Wealth Strategies in Michigan. “And some safes have come a long way in that they are lighter and easier to access.”

Make sure that family members or anyone else who would need to access the safe in an emergency has the code or knows where to find the key, suggests David Haas, founder of Cereus Financial Advisors in New Jersey. Also, hide smartly. Burglars tend to scour master bedrooms in search of valuables to steal, so put it elsewhere. And if crime in your area concerns you, go the bank safe-deposit box route. It's also a good idea to make digital backups of these documents.

Tier 2: Important references

These documents are stored for easy access: 401(k) or IRA statements, life insurance policies, tax returns (three to seven years)

Suggested storage: Online cloud storage

A number of documents are important to have for reference, but you don't need to keep physical copies. For these, you should upload electronic versions to cloud storage, then shred the originals.

Cloud storage means that your files are kept on a highly secure remote computer server. By using a service such as Apple iCloud, Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive, you can access files you have uploaded from any device—computer, tablet or phone—after you've entered in the appropriate verification info.

Files can be organized into folders. You can also give access to family members who may need access to help you in an emergency or to manage your affairs as you age.

In addition to keeping documents for which you no longer need paper copies, cloud storage is also useful for keeping backup copies of all documents. In case something happens to the paper documents, you still have access to account numbers and other information.

Tier 3: Quick access

These documents should be carried with you: driver's license, other state-issued ID, health insurance card

Suggested storage: Your wallet

This is for cards you need to access regularly. Another factor to consider is whether someone could use the information for identity theft. (Don't carry around you Social Security card, for example.)

Discover AARP Members Only Access

Join AARP to Continue

Already a Member?