Are Vital Records Open to the Public?
While the provisions of the U.S. Vital Statistics Act indicate that vital records can be accessed by interested persons, the right of public access to these records is not absolute. As such, selected vital records may be restricted from public disclosure, but available to specific persons.
Many US states allow the persons named on the record and immediate family members to access vital records, including confidential and certified copies. Persons who do not meet these eligibility requirements may obtain informational copies, which are only valid for genealogy research. Otherwise, the requester must obtain a court order granting access to that specific vital record.
What Information Do I Need to Search for Vital Records Online?
Generally, public vital records are managed electronically, on online databases and repositories, by state departments of health. To access these records, interested parties are required to visit the record custodian and provide the necessary information to facilitate a record search and retrieval.
- The full name(s) and personal information of the person(s) named on the record
- Former or maiden names (where applicable)
- The name of the subject's parents or legal guardians.
- The place and approximate date of the vital event
- The case file number of the record
- The license number and issuing date of the record (for marriage records)
How Do I Obtain Vital Records?
The requirements for obtaining vital records may vary depending on three major factors:
- The type of record being requested
- The judicial district where the record is being held
- The requester’s eligibility and authority
Standard record-request procedure requires that the requestor present a government-issued photo I.D. to prove their eligibility. If the requester is ineligible by state standards, the I.D. must be accompanied by a signed permission slip issued by the person named on the vital record. Otherwise, the requester must present a court subpoena granting access to that document.
Additionally, Section 25 of the Vital Statistics Act allows state agencies and record custodians to prescribe appropriate fees for the services they provide. Usually, the fee per record varies with the record type, the extent of research required for retrieval, and associated costs resulting from copying, certification, and notarization.
Publicly available vital records are also managed and disseminated by some third-party aggregate sites. These sites are generally not limited by geographical record availability and may serve as a reliable jump-off point when researching specific or multiple records. However, third-party sites are not government-sponsored. As such, record availability may differ from official channels. To find a record using the search engines on third party sites, the requesting party will be required to provide:
- The location of the record in question including the city, county, or state where the case was filed.
- The name of someone involved providing it is not a juvenile
The Difference Between a Certified Record and an Informational Copy
Certified records and informational copies are primarily distinguished by use and the issuer’s legal authority. Legally, certified records are the equivalent of original copies. These records can be used for a variety of official functions, such as identification and processing insurance benefits. Thus, only persons who meet specific eligibility requirements may obtain a copy.
On the other hand, informational copies of vital records are only valid for genealogical research and personal purposes. Thus, informational copies are often considered “unofficial” and as such, unsuitable for establishing a person’s identity or other legal purposes.
Are Marriage Records Public Information?
In most U.S states, marriage records are public information. However, U.S. public record laws prohibit the dissemination of identifying information to members of the public. Consequently, public marriage records often exclude sensitive information pertaining to the registrants including birth dates, current addresses, and social security numbers. Only persons named on the marriage record, and pre-authorized persons, are eligible to access marriage records.
How Do I Find Marriage Records?
Marriage records are usually held in the state’s vital records office or at the office where the marriage license was issued. To obtain these records, interested and eligible persons must contact the record custodian for information regarding the record request procedure and specific requirements in that state or judicial district. Typically, requestors are required to provide information to facilitate record searches, including:
- The full name(s) of the persons named on the record (including maiden names)
- The place and date of the marriage
- The date on which the license was issued
- The marriage license number (if known)
Are Divorce Records Public Information?
Yes. Divorce records are usually public information unless otherwise deemed by a court. Like marriage records, there are also restrictions on the information available to the public. However, all requesters above 18 years old can obtain general divorce information excluding details that put the divorcees’ safety or privacy at risk.
How Do I Find Divorce Records?
Divorce records can be obtained by querying the state’s vital records office or the clerk of courts in the county or judicial district where the divorce was granted. Typically, divorce requests require that the requester provide related information to facilitate the record search. The required information generally includes the full name of either or both parties as well as the place and approximate date of the event. Additionally, requesters are required to also cover the cost of copying and certifying the divorce record.
Are Birth Records Public Information?
Most states allow public access to birth records after a specified period of confidentiality has elapsed, ranging from 25 to 100 years. Pursuant to federal public record laws, persons eligible to access birth records include:
- The subject of the record (if they are 18 or older)
- The registrant’s parents or legal guardians (must be named on the record)
- Immediate family members of the subject (if they are deceased)
- Persons authorized by court order
- Legal representatives of eligible persons.
How Do I Find Birth Records?
Birth records are typically managed and disseminated by the state vital records office or the Health Department of the jurisdiction where the event occurred. To order birth certificates, interested and eligible persons must visit the applicable office and provide relevant information pertaining to the record of interest. Usually, requesters are required to provide the registrant’s full name, the place, and approximate date of birth as well as supporting documents, proving their eligibility to access the record. The same applies to persons requesting birth certificate replacements.
Are Death Records Open to the Public?
More often than not, death records are open to the public. Pursuant to federal statutes, general death-related information may be disseminated to persons who are 18 or older. Sensitive information such as the cause of death may be excluded unless the requester is either of the following:
- The deceased’s parent, legal guardian, or spouse
- Adult children, grandchildren, and siblings of the decedent
- Individuals who can demonstrate a tangible interest
- Persons authorized by court order
- Legal representatives of the eligible parties.
How Do I Find Death Records?
Public death records are managed by the state's vital records office as well as the various health departments. To obtain these records, interested and eligible parties may contact the appropriate office for information regarding the record request procedure and requirements. Usually, requesters are required to provide information to facilitate the death certificate search. The required information includes the deceased’s full name, the place of death, the date of death, and the record file number (if known). The deceased’s full name is most important, especially when performing a death record search by name.