What to do when you can’t find important documents

6 min read

Where to get copies of relevant documents

  • Property-related documents like titles and deeds are usually on file with a county records or the DMV.

  • Get in touch with the other parties for access to a copy of the contract.

  • For any documents related to life events, contact the state's vital records office.

  • Always be ready with the death certificate, your own ID, and proof of your authority to act on behalf of the person.

In the weeks after a loved one has passed away, you’ve likely been dealing with piles of paperwork, all on top of your grief and the responsibilities of your daily life. This period is difficult to navigate, both emotionally and practically. And it can be made even more complicated when you need particular information or a proof of ownership for property and can’t find it anywhere. 

No matter how prepared or organized your loved one was, it’s possible that important documents got lost in the shuffle of their day-to-day. Whether they didn’t realize this paperwork would be needed later or they knew and just misplaced it, now the representative of the estate can be left scrambling to find it, which can be frustrating and add stress to an already overwhelming process. 

If important papers can’t be located even after a lengthy hunt through your loved one’s files, drawers, and entire home, what should an executor do? That depends on which kind of paperwork is needed. A copy of almost any kind of document can be produced by contacting the correct agency and institution and following the procedures they have outlined for this situation.

Deeds and titles

In order to establish the value of an estate and prove ownership of the property, real estate deeds and vehicle titles are often needed during the probate process. If you can’t find one of these, they can usually be retrieved from specific records offices.

Real estate ownership documents (usually in the form of deeds) will be on file with the county records office. Unfortunately, in most states, an unrecorded deed isn’t valid, so if the county doesn’t have evidence of it, the property may be unable to be sold or transferred to an heir or beneficiary, among other complications. If this is the case, seek legal help in securing ownership of the property. 

If you’re missing a vehicle title, the state DMV will, in most cases, be able to help you transfer the vehicle through an affidavit and other paperwork. You’ll likely need a death certificate and proof of your relationship to your loved one.

In general, proof of ownership of any large property will not be lost forever, because there are multiple parties or institutions involved in keeping those records on file. You’ll always want to exhaust these options first, but if the documents prove elusive, you can also pursue the course of appealing to a judge in a claims court. 


Under many circumstances, a contract simply dissolves after one of the parties involved has passed away. If your loved one was a party to a contract that needs to be transferred, continued, or paid out after their death, then you may need to be able to produce a copy of the contract. Luckily, by the very nature of contracts there will be other parties involved, and it should always be possible to obtain a copy of a contract from one of them. 

In general, proof of ownership of any large property will not be lost forever, because multiple parties are involved.

This situation is most commonly encountered with business partnerships. To date, 39 states have adopted the Revised Uniform Partnership Act, which includes provisions about what happens upon the death of a business partner. If you have questions about your state’s particular laws, it is a good idea to seek the help of a lawyer.

Stocks and bonds

If you are aware that your loved one owned stocks and bonds—for example, if they are mentioned in the will—but can’t find physical evidence of them, there are a few steps you can take. If you know which agency issued the original certificates, you can contact them and provide a death certificate and other transfer forms to take ownership of them. This is often through a broker or through your loved one’s employer, so those are good places to start.

You can also check with various government agencies like the U.S. Treasury, which will have evidence of issued savings bonds. You can typically find and claim these with your loved one’s Social Security number and documentation that you’re the executor of the estate. 

Personal documents

Documents relating to your loved one’s life events, like birth certificates, marriage certificates, divorce certificates, or adoption paperwork are held by the vital records office of the state where the event took place. You can contact this office to ask for either an original or a copy. The process will require certain information and documentation, such as the death certificate and proof that you are the executor, as well as a fee. 

 If your loved one wasn’t born in the U.S. and you need a copy of their birth certificate, contact the U.S. embassy or consulate in that country. 

Other government documents

Most documents issued by a government office are a matter of public record, and therefore as long as you have the correct information and identification that proves you should have access to these items, you should be able to get a copy of them.

If your loved one was a veteran and you need their military ID card and any other documents related to their military duty, the Real-Time Automated Personnel Identification System (RAPIDS) can lead you in the right direction in obtaining those.

Anything regarding taxes and tax information, whether personal or for a business, can be requested from the IRS website—just follow the prompts to get to the right pages to apply for originals or copies. For example, IRS Form 4506 allows you to obtain copies of past tax returns, with the proper documentation and fees.

All the rest

Many other documents, such as insurance cards, can be simply printed out from the website of the issuing company, as long as you have the correct info. For documents related to your loved one’s present or former employer, contact the HR department. For almost every kind of document related to any accounts, memberships, and the like, the relevant company or organization will have a process in place for allowing you to obtain the paperwork you need.  

When you can’t find important documents, there is usually a way to obtain a record of them or prove they did once exist. If you find yourself unable to track down what you need, even through official channels, you can speak to an estate law expert to explore other options—such as appealing to an estate law court or providing legally binding affidavits—to produce the documentation you need to finally close your loved one’s estate and focus on other things that matter.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.