How to Replace Lost Documents

Learn which documents are the most important for people to have after a disaster — and which organizations or agencies to contact for help with replacing them.

Overview

For disaster survivors, having documents that prove who they are and what they own can be critical for issues such as aid applications, insurance claims, and housing disputes. Also critical during the recovery process are documents regarding insurance coverage, medical care, wills, child custody, access to Medicaid and other federal benefits, and more.

Prioritizing which documents to replace first will depend in part on a survivor’s needs and circumstances. Nonetheless, if the president declares a disaster for a particular area, the residents there generally must apply for federal aid within 60 days. That makes it very important to have the documentation the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) asks for as soon as possible.

The information FEMA asks applicants for includes:

  • Identification
  • Proof that they are a homeowner or tenant (lease, deed, etc.)
  • Insurance information, if applicable
  • Social Security numbers
  • Annual household income
  • Bank account information, for direct deposit of federal aid to a checking or savings account

Replacing Lost Documents

  • If you are a disaster survivor, our resources will guide you through replacing lost documents, providing information on which government departments or agencies to contact. For state-specific contacts, however, you may need to check for information from FEMA (which often provides it after a disaster) or consult with your local legal aid office. Replacing some documents may require contacting private companies — for instance, contacting an insurance provider for a copy of your policy.
  • If you are a legal aid provider, you can use our Replacing Lost Documents resources to find information on which federal departments and agencies to contact on behalf of your clients. For some of the documents listed in the table, such as marriage and driver’s licenses, you will need to fill in the name of the agency or department to contact in your state. Do this as soon as possible so you will be prepared if a disaster strikes. Consider distributing this resource to people in your community so they also will have the information at hand.

  • Find Legal Aid in your Area

    If you are looking for help with a civil legal problem, use this tool to enter an address or city to find an LSC-funded legal aid organization near you.

  • Disaster Recovery Centers

    FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers (DRCs) are accessible facilities and mobile offices you can visit to learn more about FEMA and other disaster assistance programs. You may also visit to ask questions about your case. DRCs are set up in convenient areas after a disaster to make them easier to find.

    A DRC may be able to help you:

    • Apply for assistance. You may also Apply for FEMA Assistance online or Apply/Check your status by phone 1-800-621-3362.
    • Learn more about disaster assistance programs.
    • Learn the status of your FEMA application.
    • Understand any letters you get from FEMA.
    • Find housing and rental assistance information.
    • Get answers to questions or resolve problems.
    • Get referrals to agencies that may offer other assistance.
    • Learn about Small Business Administration (SBA) programs.

     

    To find a Disaster Recovery Center near you, use the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s DRC locator or text “DRC” and your zip code to 43362 (4FEMA) to locate a Disaster Recovery Center in your area.

Saving Documents

The best way to avoid having to replace lost documents is to take steps to protect them in case of a disaster. This can include:

  • Making copies and storing them in a watertight and fireproof container, preferably on a high shelf to protect them from rising floodwater.
  • Scanning documents and storing them online, using a cloud service, so that they can be accessed from anywhere with your password.

  • Safeguarding Documents: The Basics

    Developed by South Carolina Legal Services, this video discusses how to keep important documents safe during a disaster. Though specific to South Carolina, many of these concepts apply across the country.

  • Safeguarding Documents: Title to Your Property – Heir Property

    Developed by South Carolina Legal Services, this video covers how to protect specific documents proving you own your home and property. Though specific to South Carolina, many of these concepts also apply in other jurisdictions.

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