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Introduction << Vital Records <<

| Vital Records | State Vital Records |
| Local Vital Records |
| What You Need to Know to Order a Vital Record |
| How To Order a Vital Record |
| Types of Vital Records |

Vital Records

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Ancestors expert Cyndi Howells talks about vital records on the Internet.

The birth of a baby, a marriage that unites two families, or the death of a loved one -- these are moments that create and define families. In family history research, documenting these events and the relationships they represent is a way to connect one generation to the next. A good starting point for your research is with the official vital records - the birth, marriage and death information recorded in the locality where your relative lived, or where you think he or she lived.

Wedding Picture Many of these records still exist. In the United States, they're called "vital records," while outside the U.S. they're generally referred to as "civil registration." These records about the events that shape our lives are considered primary sources of genealogical information because they were recorded at the time the event took place. They are also excellent sources for confirming names and dates you've found in secondary records.

State Vital Records

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

mother and daughter 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:

  • the ancestor's full name
  • approximate birth, marriage, or death date
  • city, town or county where the event occurred
  • 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:

  • your relationship to the person whose record you are requesting
  • your purpose for requesting the record
  • your full name, contact information, and signature
  • a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope)
  • 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, select your state of interest, and look under vital records.

    marriage certificate If microfilmed records are not available for your state or you prefer to write for an original copy, you can go to 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, 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:

  • their phone numbers for other questions you might have (
  • their fax numbers (
  • or to confirm their addresses (
  • 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.

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