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Preserve Your Family's Paper Trail: Replace and Safeguard Personal Records

Casey Mysliwy

Here's a question that might stump you: Do you know where your birth certificate is?

It's often not until you need your own or a family member's personal records that you realize you're not sure where the records are. Records can be lost due to theft, damage, or a simple case of misplacement. Whatever the cause, missing records can create problems. Without them, you'll have a tough time obtaining a passport or driver's license, applying for Social Security or insurance benefits, or even getting remarried.

However, lost personal papers don't have to be gone for good. Here's how to replace some common types of personal records—and prevent them from disappearing again.

Replacing vital records

To obtain a certified copy of a birth, death, marriage, or divorce certificate, you'll first need to determine where the event happened. According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), Atlanta, these types of records should be on file in the locality where the event occurred—the federal government does not maintain them.

Once you know where to look, write to or visit the vital statistics office in the appropriate state or area to request records. Check the NCHS vital records directory for state-specific addresses, costs, and record availability. Depending on the type of record you're requesting, you'll need to provide some additional facts, such as names, dates, and the purpose for which the record is needed. The NCHS provides guidelines for gathering the information necessary to complete your request.

Replacing your Social Security card

Veterans and their next-of-kin can request free copies of their report of separation and other records.

You can replace a lost or stolen Social Security card for free. First, fill out an application for a new card (Form SS-5, available online). Then, use the Social Security Administration's (SSA) online tool to find out which documents you'll need to prove your identity and citizenship. Bring or mail your application and original documents or documents certified by the custodian of the original record to your local Social Security office. The Social Security office will return any documents submitted with your application.

Remember that a lost or stolen card may put you at risk for identity theft. Follow the SSA's prevention steps to keep your identity safe.

Replacing military records

Military records for discharged service members are stored at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), College Park, Md. According to the NARA, veterans and their next of kin can request free copies of their report of separation and other records in any of these ways:

For more information, visit the NARA's guide to requesting records.

Protecting your papers

Although you can replace most important papers, the process takes time, energy, and sometimes money. Avoid the hassle—and guard against identity theft—by knowing where to store personal documents to keep them safe and secure.

Deciding where to store your documents depends on how often you'll need them, says Laura Connerly, instructor-family resource management at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service in Little Rock, Ark. "Things that [you] don't have to have frequently should be in some kind of secure storage," she says. "Probably the most secure option would be in a safe deposit box."

Safe deposit boxes are available at many credit unions, usually for a low yearly rental fee. Contact your credit union for information about availability and rental costs.

Contact your credit union for information about safe deposit box availability.

According to Connerly, you can keep records that you need on a more regular basis at home—but you still should store them in a safe place, like a secure, fireproof box. "For things that you need more often, like your children's birth certificates that you have to have every year for school, or your Social Security card, that's something you probably want to keep at home, locked in your fire safety box," she says.

Connerly also recommends keeping an updated inventory of where records are stored to avoid losing track of them. "I like to keep a list that's in my fireproof lockbox," she says.

A little organization can go a long way—and with all your documents replaced and safely stored, you'll never have to wonder where your birth certificate is again.

Personal records: What goes where?

Use this guide to determine where to store personal records:

At home in fireproof box:

  • Children's birth certificates (if needed for school)
  • Social Security cards
  • Passports (if used frequently)
  • Safe deposit box inventory

In credit union safe deposit box:

  • Adoption papers
  • Birth certificates (those not needed frequently)
  • Death certificates
  • Divorce/separation papers
  • Marriage certificates
  • Military records
  • Passports (if not used frequently)
  • Stock certificates
  • Savings bonds

Source: Laura Connerly, "Important Family Records—What to Keep and Where"

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