What are Vital Records?
Vital records―also known as vital statistics―deal with some of the most monumental moments in a person's life:
So, documents such as birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, and divorce decrees, best represent tangible vital records.
Some states also include documents recording civil unions and domestic partnerships, and you might find naturalization records and adoption records filed under vital statistics, too.
Using Vital Records
Vital records provide invaluable genealogical information, but they are most commonly used as solid sources of identification.
You can use vital records for:
- Finding out if someone has ever been married or divorced during a background checks.
- Researching your family tree. Vital records can help you find out when someone was born, their name at birth, who their parents were, who they married and possibly divorced, and when and how they died.
- Proving identification. Certain government procedures, such as applying for a driver's license or passport, require a birth certificate as proof of identification. If you're name's ever changed, you'll need to show a marriage license and possibly divorce decree, too.
Accessing Vital Records
For the most part, vital records are public records, meaning the general public can access them using the proper channels.
Note that not all states allow third parties to access vital records without consent, though.
(When this rule is in place, generally it pertains to the vital records of people who are still alive; each state sets its own laws, though.)
So, if you want to access someone else's vital records, be sure to check with the state's vital records unit regarding policy.
Sealed Vital Records
If a vital record has been sealed (such as a birth record in a closed adoption case) the general public can't access it without a court order and, in most cases, cutting through a lot of red tape.
How to Request Vital Records
Vital records might be some of the easiest records to get your hands on (depending on the state's laws regarding third-party requests, of course).
Generally, all you have to do is write to the state's vital records unit with:
- Your request.
- Applicable fees. (Most states charge a nominal fee per copy for each type of vital record.)
- Government-issued photo identification with a signature. (This applies to some states; not all).
Visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's Where to Write for Vital Records for details on how to order vital records in each state, as well as links to each state's vital records unit and instructions.
Instructions for obtaining certified copies are also available.
NOTE: Don't forget, in many states you can simply visit the appropriate county courthouse to request and pay for copies of vital records.
Ordering Vital Records Online
Lots of third-party companies offer the service of getting copies of vital records for you. They streamline and simplify the process, and often you have to deal only with that company.
However, before ordering vital records from a third-party business, make sure the state housing the records allows third parties to access these records. Be sure to ask about certified copies, too, if those are the types you'll need.