Each state has the equivalent of a bureau of vital records. It's generally called the "Bureau of Vital Statistics," "Division of Records and Statistics,"
"Division of Public Health," "Vital Records Division," or some similar title. No matter the name, the state agency is where you go to obtain birth, marriage
and death certificate. States require a fee for each certificate, generally from $5 to $25. In most cases, you pay first and then wait for the state agency
to mail the record to you. Response time varies widely and can range from a week to several months.
It is important to know that vital records searches are most useful for finding relatively recent information. With some exceptions, most U.S. states did
not assume legal responsibility for vital records until around the turn of the last century. The first to start keeping vital records was Massachusetts in 1841
and the last was New Mexico in 1920. Knowing when a state officially introduced a policy of statewide registration
can save you time and effort writing for records that don't exist. To learn when your state of interest began recording births and deaths, go to the Availability of Certificates extra.
If the event is fairly recent in genealogical terms, it's also worth checking whether your target state has any privacy laws
which prevent them from releasing a record to any but the closest of kin for a specified period of time (often 50 or 72 years).
Local Vital Records
If you're seeking an event that occurred before 1900, don't give up hope! You may be able to find what you're looking for at the local level. Your odds are best if you have New England
heritage or are seeking marriage records, which many local civil governments assumed responsibility for registering from the time of that county or town's formation.
New England states have more complete vital records from before 1900 than most other regions. Nearly two-thirds of Massachusetts towns, for example, have published their early vital records,
and Rhode Island has published vital records annually since 1847. It's possible to find marriage records from the early 1600s in some New England towns, and from the early 1700s in counties
in the South. For a small fee, town and county officials will provide you with copies of requested marriage entries.
What You Need to Know to Order a Vital Record
Before you begin searching for a specific vital record, you'll want to do a little background research. First, you need to decide when and where your ancestor should appear in the record.
At a minimum, you need to know:
You may find this information in an oral history, compiled record, census listing, or other family record. In making an actual request, you need to include this information as well as:
Providing additional information can be helpful, especially when your ancestor had a common name or you are unsure of the exact date of the event. Consider including information such as
nicknames, spouse's name, and mother's maiden name to increase the chances that you will receive the record you are seeking.
How to Order a Vital Record
To learn where to write and exactly what information your state of interest requires, you can consult guides published by the U.S. Government, by the states themselves, or by the Family History Library, most of which are now readily
available on the Internet.
In some cases, the Family History Library may have microfilmed copies of your state's vital records, or at least indexes of
some of these records, making it possible for you to search the records yourself at your local Family History Center.
To see if this is the case, visit Familysearch.org, select your state of interest, and look under vital records.
If microfilmed records are not available for your state or you prefer to write for an original copy, you can go to http://www.vitalrec.com
which will not only give you the details you need, but in many cases also allow you to print out the state's official application form. If you're in a hurry and willing to pay a bit of
a premium, http://www.vitalchek.com permits you to submit your requests by phone, fax, or Internet. This is also the place to go
to find contact information for county and local agencies or to quickly look up:
When contacting these agencies, please remember that they were not created to help us find our roots and that fulfilling genealogical requests is beyond their scope of responsibility.
Add to this the fact that many of these agencies have been inundated in recent years, and you'll understand why completeness, courtesy and patience go a long way.
Types of Vital Records
There are three main types of vital records -- birth, marriage, and death records - although divorce records represent a fourth and often
neglected resource. Any of these documents may provide valuable insights into your ancestors' families and day-to-day lives. You may feel inclined to start your vital records search
at the beginning with the birth record, but many experts recommend looking for a death record first. This is because the death record is the most recent record, and therefore the most
likely to be available.