The term "Vital Records" has traditionally been arbitrarily limited to birth, marriage and death records. But even this simplistic view of certain types of records as "vital" and other not-so-vital, breaks down when you examine these categories carefully. For example, the Arizona Office of Vital records is part of the Arizona Department of Health Services. In Utah, it is not quite so clear. The Utah Vital Records are categorized under Records and Archives but the Office of Vital Records and Statistics is administered by the Utah Department of Health. The Utah Office of Vital Records supplies marriage records while the Arizona Department of Health Services refers inquiries to the Clerk of the Superior Court in the country where the event occurred. You will find even more variety of inclusion or exclusion of records across the United States and around the world.
You might think that divorce records, the opposite of marriage records, would also be considered "vital." However, in Arizona you need to go to the individual county courts to obtain such records just as with marriage records. Likewise, even though marriage records are available from the Utah State Office of Vital Records, a search for divorce records is deferred to the clerks of the courts in each county. You will find the same inconsistency across the United States and searching for relatively current birth, death and marriage records can become a monumental task.
One thing that is uniform across the United States is that there are charges for obtaining copies of birth, death and marriage records sometimes even when the people involved have long since died. The ostensible reason for restricting access to these records involves privacy concerns, but in reality, the states see the charges for copies of these records as a revenue stream. The cost of obtaining a copy of a vital record can vary from state to state and even, in some cases, from county to county.
At this point, I should begin expanding on the issue of "vital" records. Here are a few other topics that may fall under this umbrella-type term:
- Paternity records
- Adoption records
- Name Change records
- Still Birth records
- Burial records
- Cemetery records
- Divorce records
- Formal Marriage Separation records
It is now time to introduce the issue of time of creation of the records. Here is the unfortunate rule for genealogists:
Every single state and every single county in the United States has a different start date for when marriage, birth and death related records were required by law to be maintained and every state and every county has a different date when the records actually began to be maintained.
Oh, one more level of complication. There is a rather complex industry that has arisen in the United States of private companies that sell a service of providing vital records. For example if you do a search for birth records in Arizona, you will find a long list of companies and other entities that will provide a copy of a birth record for a fee. It is sometimes very difficult to distinguish between the "official" providers of those records from the state and county governments and those who are adding on a "service" fee for ordering the records from the official government agencies. The problem is further confused when some states, like Utah, use an outside contract service to provide copies of some records.
This brings us to the next major rule concerning vital records:
As we go back in time, there is a point when each category of vital records for ordinary people was neither required nor kept.
The obvious limits in the United States involve time periods when the Europeans began settling in America, but there are limits in every country around the world. The rule of thumb for Europe is the mid-14th Century. I like to use around 1500 AD as a good cut off point for almost all records of ordinary people, as opposed to royalty and rich people, but most vital records in the United States are only common beginning in the 1800s. There are exceptions and that is what makes doing genealogical research so interesting.
This particular series has all the hallmarks of going on for a while.