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Estate Planning

How to Replace Vital Documents and Records

Birth certificate, marriage certificate, will, passport, Social Security card or divorce decree lost or missing? Here's what to do.

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Even in the internet age, you may be asked to produce a hard copy of your birth certificate, Social Security card, marriage certificate or divorce papers. A digital version won’t cut it. If your critical documents currently reside in a drawer, move them to a fireproof home safe or safe-deposit box, and give an attorney or trusted family member copies, along with instructions on where the originals are located. If any have been misplaced, stolen or destroyed, here’s how to replace them.

See Also: 7 Good Reasons to Change Your Will

Birth certificate. You’ll need your birth certificate to enroll in school, apply for a passport, qualify for government benefits, join the military, and claim pension and insurance payouts. Some states require you to show a birth certificate to obtain a driver’s license.

If you can’t put your hands on your birth certificate and you were born in the U.S., contact the vital records office in the state where you were born. Use this CDC directory of state vital records offices to find the Web site, address and phone number of yours. You’ll also find a list of fees and an estimate of how long it will take to process your request. (In California, for example, you can get a copy of your birth certificate in about 10 business days.) You’ll be asked to provide your full name, your parents’ names (including your mother’s maiden name), your date of birth, and the city or county in which you were born. If you know the name of the hospital, include that, too. Fees range from $9 to $30.

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Were your parents living outside the U.S. when you were born? They should have registered your birth with the U.S. embassy or consulate and received a Consular Report of Birth Abroad. You can get a copy of the report through the U.S. State Department Web site by searching for “CRBA.” If you were born abroad and adopted by a U.S. citizen, you might need a birth certificate from the country of your birth. Here's a list of foreign consular offices in the U.S.

Marriage and divorce records. A marriage license is the document that authorizes you to get married. A marriage certificate is the document that proves you followed through. It’s typically filed with the appropriate county office by the officiant at your wedding. You should have received a copy a few weeks after your wedding. If you’ve lost it, contact your state’s vital records office. You’ll need to provide the full names of both spouses, the date of your wedding, and the city or town where the wedding was performed. Fees range from $10 to $30. You may need this document to add your spouse to your employer’s health insurance plan.

Less suitable for framing but still important are documents you receive after you’ve divorced. To save time and money, make sure you understand the type of divorce-related document you need to replace. For example, a divorce certificate is sufficient if all you want to do is change your name on your driver’s license. You can obtain a copy of this document from your state’s vital records office; fees range from $5 to $30.

But if you apply for a mortgage, the lender may ask to see your final divorce decree issued by the courts to determine how much of your income is allocated to child support or alimony. Likewise, if you apply for Social Security benefits based on your ex-spouse’s earnings record, the Social Security Administration may ask you to provide your divorce decree. (The SSA may also ask you to provide your marriage certificate.) To get this document, you must contact the county clerk’s office for the city or county in which the divorce was granted.

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Passport. As soon as you realize your passport has been lost or stolen, contact the U.S. State Department. Otherwise, you risk becoming a victim of identity theft.

You can fill out Form DS-64 online to report your lost or stolen passport. You’ll receive an e-mail acknowledging that your report was received. Within a couple of days, you’ll receive another e-mail (or letter, if you request that option) confirming that your passport has been entered into the Consular Lost or Stolen Database.

If you aren’t leaving the country for a while, you can apply for a replacement passport at a Passport Application Acceptance Facility. Many post offices, public libraries and local government offices serve as such facilities. You can search for the nearest authorized facility. The fee for a replacement passport is $135 (a $110 application fee plus a $25 execution fee because you must apply in person).

If you have plans to travel outside the country in two weeks or less, you will need to make an appointment to appear in person at a passport agency or center. You can find one near you at the State Department’s Web site. You must provide proof, such as an airline reservation, that you will be traveling outside the country within two weeks. In addition to the regular passport fees, you’ll be charged $60 for expedited service, plus $14.85 if you want overnight delivery.

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Social Security and Medicare cards. In most cases, you don’t need to show your Social Security card; you just need to give the number. However, some states may require you to show your Social Security card to get a driver’s license.

You can replace a lost or stolen Social Security card free, and if you live in the District of Columbia, Michigan, Nebraska, Washington or Wisconsin, you might be able to do it online. Go to the Social Security Web site to learn how. More states may be added in the future. If you’re not eligible to apply for a replacement card online, fill out Form SS-5. Mail in the form along with a U.S.-issued driver’s license, a state-issued non-driver ID card or a U.S. passport. Or, because the Social Security Administration won’t accept photocopies of the required documents, it may be safer to apply in person at the nearest Social Security branch office.

If you need a new Medicare card and you have an online Social Security account, log in, click on the “Replacement Documents” tab and then on “Mail my replacement Medicare card.” Your card will arrive in the mail in about 30 days. You can set up an online account on the Social Security Web site. If you don’t want to set up an online account, call 800-772-1213 or visit the nearest Social Security office to apply for a replacement card.

College transcripts. Transcripts should be available from your alma mater no matter how long ago you attended. Depending on the school and when you graduated, you may be able to order them online. Otherwise, you’ll need to print out a transcript request form from your school’s Web site and mail it in. You’ll be asked to provide a student ID or Social Security number, the dates you attended and the degree (or degrees) you were awarded. Fees range from $6 to $10; some colleges will provide transcripts free.

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If you attended a private college or university that has closed its doors since you graduated, check with the state licensing agency. Most schools that shut down make arrangements with these agencies to store their records. For transcripts from shuttered public schools, contact the state department of education.

How to Find a Missing Will

Your mother told you many times that she had a will. Unfortunately, she didn’t tell you where she stored the document, and now she’s gone. In the absence of a will, the laws of your state will determine who will get your mother’s property.

If you have combed through your mother’s files unsuccessfully, it’s possible that she stored her will in a safe-deposit box. Be aware, though, that her bank may require you to obtain a court order to open it. It’s worth contacting your mother’s attorney, if she had one, because some lawyers keep wills on behalf of their clients. Another place to check is the county probate court (known as the surrogate court in some states). Although not common, some state courts allow individuals to file their wills with the court for safekeeping, says Leanna Hamill, an estate-planning lawyer in Hingham, Mass.

If you find a copy of the will but not the original, you’ll have to prove to the probate court that the original wasn’t revised or revoked. The court may accept a copy if you can demonstrate that the original was lost because of an “intervening act,” such as a house fire or burglary, says Chas Rampenthal, general counsel for LegalZoom, an online provider of legal documents and services. Some states will accept a copy if you testify that the original hasn’t been found and provide evidence that no other versions exist, says Howard Krooks, a lawyer with Elder Law Associates in Boca Raton, Fla.