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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Why are Vital Records Vital to Genealogists? Part Three -- Where are the Records?

In my last post I pointed out that vital records, particularly formal, government issued records such as birth, death and marriage certificates are a relatively new innovation. If we were to go back into history and try to discover why governments decided to record births and deaths, we would find that the reasons had more to do with military service and taxes than a desire to preserve the information for genealogists. As I previously mentioned, most governments who record and create certificates for births and deaths, use these devices for revenue enhancement: they make money from selling copies of the certificates. If you have been directly involved in a death in the United States, you may have discovered that certified copies of a death certificate are not inexpensive. In Arizona, for example, copies of a death certificate are $20.00 to $30.00 each. The categories of both birth and death certificates listed by the Arizona Department of Health Services, Office of Vital Records is as follows:
  • Birth Certificate
  • Delayed Birth Registration
  • Foreign Born Certificate
  • Amendment/Correction on a Birth Certificate
  • Death Certificate
  • Fetal Death Certificate
  • Certificate of Birth Resulting in Stillbirth
  • Presumptive Death Certificate
  • Delayed Death Certificate
  • Delayed Fetal Death Certificate
  • Delayed Certificate of Birth Resulting in Stillbirth
  • Amendment/Correction on a Death Certificate
  • Amendment/Correction on a Fetal Death Certificate
  • Court Ordered Release of Certified Copy of Any Vital Record
  • Certificate of No Record
  • Putative Father Search
  • Non-Certified Copies for Government Agencies Only
  • Search to Verify Birth or Death for Statistical, Medical, Research, or Administrative Purposes

Almost every other state in the United States is going to have a similar list. For a genealogist, the existence of such records is a gold mine. But I am guessing that very few researchers are aware of the variety of certificates that are available.

Here is the problem: most researchers would like to have a birth or death certificate to learn where and when a person was born or died. But in many cases, to obtain a copy of the birth or death certificate the researcher needs to know the name, date of the event and where the event occurred. It is the classic which comes first, the chicken or the egg type problem. The real question is when do these records become published and are more easily found? The answer depends entirely on the place where the event was recorded.

Arizona is the exception to the general rule in the United States in that the state has a website,, that has copies of birth and death certificates for most of the people who were born or died in the state for births before 1939 and deaths before 1964. I say this is the exception, because few other states conveniently provide such information online. Here are some online lists of websites that may contain birth and death records. As I pointed out previously, the Research Wiki contains links to records for each state and county in the United States and also links to resources in many other countries. Here is another list:

The list could go on and on since copies of vital records can turn up in surprising places. You will need to search by county and by state on the internet to find additional places the records may be kept or available online and availability may change at any time. For example, is converting its microfilm collection of records to digital copies and putting the digital copies online. New records are added to the online collections almost daily and millions of new records are made available every week. A search on the day this was written produced 1,288,907,296 records with a record type of birth, baptism, christenings, marriage and death.

Any discussion of vital records needs to be separated out by category and by time period. Marriage records fall into a completely different category than other vital records. Marriages have always involved property considerations. When a marriage takes place in any culture around the world, there are legal and cultural consequences. For example, in the United States, the laws around the country provide that a spouse to a marriage has some kind of inheritance rights upon a spouse's death absent some specific provision in a will or other testamentary disposition of the deceased's property. For this reason, marriage and marriage-like relationships will be addressed specifically in subsequent posts. The laws governing marriages, inheritance and probate proceedings are all closely related. Although birth and death can impact inheritance and property ownership, the laws governing marriages are far more complex. The fact is that it is relatively easy to determine if a person was born or died compared to determining whether or not a person was married. On the other hand, marriage records are more persistently kept that any other type of vital record. Of the three broad types of vital records, researchers are much more likely to find marriage records than they are an individual's birth or death record.

Here are the previous installments of this series.

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