By Mike Hiestand, Houstory Founder
The following is the second part of a two-part series written by Houstory founder Mike Hiestand. Mike’s background in open records law is extensive: He worked as an attorney for more than two decades, helping journalists with their questions about access to government records and meetings.
In last week’s post, he provided general information regarding vital records research. This week, he’ll touch on the specifics of tracking down this valuable information for family historians and genealogists.
Providing specific information about access to vital records that applies across the board — in every state or territory — is simply not possible. Nevertheless, here are a few points to keep in mind:
Who to Ask
Requests for most public records can generally be made to the place where you think the records are kept. For example, if you’d like to see a copy of the health inspection of a particular restaurant in your town or an environmental impact study affecting your neighborhood, you should request those records from the County Health Department in the county where the restaurant is located or the state or federal agency that conducted the environmental tests. The same is often true for vital records — but not always. If you’re looking for a marriage certificate and you live near where you know the marriage was performed, it’s probably worth a phone call to that county clerk’s office. While they may not keep the record you’re looking for they should be able to direct you to the appropriate office (for example, a county court clerk.) However, a number of states have created Vital Records Offices or Agencies that are now responsible for collecting and managing access to vital records — either separately or in addition to the local record-keeper. A good resource for determining where vital records in a particular state are kept is maintained by Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Alternatively, you can just enter “Vital Records” and your state name (or you can even try your county name) into an Internet search engine to track down more information.
How to Ask
In many states, public records must be made available when they are asked for, either by mail, by phone or in person. Verbal requests in some of these states are valid. Other states require that you submit a written request. (You can find a nice, free automated form for requesting many public records here. (Full disclosure: I can say it’s nice because I helped create it years ago.)
Once again, however, obtaining vital records often requires you to play by different rules, which frequently includes requiring that you complete a specific agency form or that you provide specific identification that, as discussed above, proves you are someone with a direct and tangible interest.
While an increasing number of government agencies now offer online ordering services for vital records, in many cases states have made the private company VitalChek the authorized agency to provide such service. If you go the online route, just be aware that VitalCheck charges a service fee for the convenience, which is in addition to the regular fee charged by the state or local record-keeper.
Other companies are also stepping into the vital records business, so you may want to do a bit of research if you expect to need such information on an ongoing basis.
When to Ask
This is particularly frustrating as states truly are all over the map in establishing waiting periods — or not — when it comes to accessing vital records. Most states have waiting periods specified in their statutes for how long after an event you have to wait to request access to birth certificates and death certificates — but not all. A fairly common waiting period for birth certificates (unless the record is your own or you are the minor subject’s parent/guardian) is 100 years after the birth. Twenty-five years after death is a common waiting period for death certificates. Waiting periods for adoption records are even more varied, and frequently combined with other various exceptions and requirements. Waiting periods are less common for marriage and divorce records.
Still, trying to provide “standard” general information in this forum is an exercise in futility. In 2009, the Records Preservation and Access Committee of The Federation of Genealogical Societies and The National Genealogical Society compiled a list of states and their respective waiting periods, which may provide some help. Unfortunately, because state laws often include a dazzling array of exceptions and other stipulations, the list might not be the end of your research. A visit to your state’s Vital Records Office is probably the best first step.
How much does it cost?
You should expect to pay a fee to obtain a vital record. Open record statutes will either establish a standard fee schedule or, alternatively, allow an agency to charge a “reasonable fee.” One thing is clear: Providing public access to public documents is not supposed to be a money-making venture for the government. Unfortunately, as state and local governments have seen their budgets shrink, there has been an increasing tendency to raise fees for public records. Still, the law demands the fees be reasonable — which generally means the agency is entitled to recoup its actual costs for producing the record — and courts have sometimes stepped in to strike down particularly high fees as unreasonable. Vital records generally do have set fees, but those fees have also been rising in some states. The CDC Web site, mentioned above, includes some fee information.
Vital statistics records are part of the bread and butter of genealogists. While the rules can be frustrating, the information is generally available.