US Vital Records
Vital records are archives of life events that are held by the government usually at the county and state levels, which include birth certificates, marriage licenses, divorce records, and death certificates. Original copies are required to be held by government entities, and certified original copies must be available for distribution for a fee (some are now available online for free). Vital records are often available to the public, but usually restricted to the person the record belongs to, or their immediate family or someone with written authorization; however, there are exceptions that do allow general public access. Certified copies of vital records are used as official identification. Vital records usually contain the person’s full name, the date of the event and the county, state or town where the event took place.
A birth certificate is documented proof of the legal birth of a child in the U.S. Birth certificates are state issued and are considered appropriate documentation for most legal matters. The information provided on a birth certificate may vary but usually includes the child’s name, gender, date of birth (sometimes the time of birth), place of birth and parents names.
Original copies can be ordered and usually have a raised or stamped seal to signify their originality; certified copies can also be ordered and will not include the raised seal or certification stamp. Birth certificates are often used for cross-border travel to Mexico and Canada and are necessary for obtaining a driver’s license or passport.
Two separate marriage documents can be obtained from state government records. A marriage license is a legal document authorizing a designated party to perform the marriage ceremony. The marriage certificate is the official legal document proving the nuptials took place and that the marriage is legally binding. Some states may include civil unions or domestic partnerships in their vital record archives.
Original copies, certified copies or simply just verification of the marriage can be obtained. The marriage certificate is filed at the office of the County Clerk, Recorder or Registrar of Vital Statistics where the marriage license was issued. However, please be aware that the marriage certificate may not always state the same location the marriage ceremony took place.
When a married couple legally divorces, the divorce records are filed as state vital records. There are three different types of divorce records: divorce certificate, divorce decree, and divorce record. Which of these documents may be available to the public, however, varies from state to state. Divorce records are sometimes stored at both the state and county level.
- Divorce certificate: This is the document with the least amount of information but most commonly used by people. It states the two people getting divorced as well as the time and place of the divorce. These certificates are most commonly used for change of name or for remarrying purposes.
- Divorce Decree: This document contains the same information as a divorce certificate, but it also includes information about the divorce judgment. It will include all terms of the divorce, including but not limited to custody information, property divisions and spousal support payments such as child support and alimony. It will be signed by the judge, have a court case number and will be included in the divorce records.
- Divorce Record: Out of all three of the divorce documents, this record contains the most information. This acts as a court case file and, therefore, will contain the information from both the certificate and the decree as well as every single file and report from the entire divorce process. This document is used if one of the divorcees wants to challenge a decision.
A death record is an official statement signed by a physician that states the cause, the date, and the place of a person’s death. A death certificate record can also be issued by a person such as a registrar of vital statistics that declares the date, location and cause of a person’s death as later entered into an official registry of deaths.
In most states, the death certificate is considered public domain and can be obtained by anyone regardless of their relationship to the deceased. Some jurisdictions, however, to restrict access. Restrictions on access to a death certificate may include access only to close relatives, including the spouse, parents, children, siblings and other persons who have a documented lawful right or claim, documented medical need or a state court order.
Some death certificates can be certified by a neurologist in the case that a person is verifiably dead but still on life support. In this case, the neurologist verifies the person is brain dead. Sometimes, a police officer or paramedic may be allowed to sign a death certificate under special circumstances, usually when the cause of death seems obvious and no foul play is suspected, such as in extreme old age. In such cases, an autopsy is rarely performed. In some jurisdictions, police officers may sign death certificates for children who are victims of SIDS, while in others all deaths of people under the age of 18 must be certified by a physician. Accidental deaths where there is no chance of survival (e.g., decapitations) may be certified by police or paramedics, but autopsies are still usually performed to verify whether alcohol or drugs played a role in the accident.
A full explanation of the cause of death usually includes four items:
- The immediate cause of death, such as the heart-stopping
- The intermediate causes that triggered the immediate cause of death, such as a myocardial infarction (heart attack)
- The underlying causes, which triggered the chain of events leading to death, such as atherosclerosis (cardiovascular disease)
- Any other diseases and disorders the person had at the time of death, even though they did not directly cause the death
Death certificates are often used during estate planning, execution of a will, for social security purposes or life insurance benefit payments. Failure of a physician to immediately submit the required form to the government to trigger issuance of a death certificate is often a crime and can be the cause of a physician to lose their license to practice. This is because scandals occur where people use the person’s identity to continue to receive public benefits or for voting in elections. Death certificates can also be issued pursuant to a court order or an executive order in the case of people who are declared dead in absentia (e.g., missing persons or victims of natural disasters).