Vital Records

Where can vital records be found?

Vital records are essential to identifying a person: these are the birth, death, and marriage certificates created by state officials. Each state has a department responsible for the management and safekeeping of these records as well as regulations about who can receive copies.

Individuals need copies of their vital records for a variety of reasons, including getting a passport, joining the military, enrolling in school, proof of identity for health insurance, security clearances, military service, and more. While vital records are considered public documents, access to them is restricted due to the possibility of identity theft and fraud.

To get a copy of your own birth or marriage certificate, contact the vital records office in the state where you were born or the clerk in the city where the birth or marriage took place. Some may provide abstracts without certain identifying information to people for genealogy research, others require proof that the request was made by a close family member.

Types of vital records

  • Birth certificate – Found at the state office of vital records where the individual was born, this document provides proof of identity and age, which are both keys to determining eligibility for public education, military service, government health care, passport documents, and residency.
  • Marriage certificate – found at city clerk’s office where the application was filed, this document identifies the parties getting married and is a legal cornerstone for certain types of benefits, including spousal social security, inheritances, and death benefits.
  • Death certificate – found at vital records office, this record shows date and time of an individual’s death; many states withhold information on cause of death. This record can be used to collect survivor benefits and inheritances and to show familial relationships. Some infant mortality records are kept and records of terminated pregnancies are kept by select states with specific laws pertaining to them.
  • Divorce records – these are not officially reported to the federal government anymore but are kept at the state level to be used by courts when requested, by officials determining custody and property division, etc.

Why do states keep vital records?

State and federal governments use the information contained in vital records to track trends in births, deaths, and families, which can identify disease issues and project population changes. The birth information helps states plan for schools and other public services. The national government relies on these records for purposes of identity and national security, such as passport regulation. A birth certificate, which triggers the creation of a social security number, qualifies the individual for certain federal benefits in the future, including social security and medicaid benefits. For these reasons, the security of vital records is tightly controlled.

Changes to vital records, whether for adoption or to correct an error, are done with rigorous scrutiny including by court order. Currently, there is concern that birth records are not marked “deceased” quickly enough after a person dies, leaving the identity of that individual ripe for fraud as thieves may learn about the death and obtain a birth certificate to assume the dead person’s identity.

Adoptees recently won the right to see their original birth certificates in many states, information that had been previously kept confidential. These individuals were able to learn their birth parents’ names and ethnicities, which could affect medical treatments.

State creation of vital records is established by federal regulations and are overseen by the Centers for Disease Control. There are 11 million vital events recorded in the United States and its territories each year, including 4.3 million births and 2.4 million deaths. The requirement for recording divorces was dropped in 1995, but some states still record those and induced fetal deaths (abortions).

Many states will provide uncertified or abstract copies of documents to those who request one but restrict certified copies to a small number of people including direct relatives of the person named. For instance, New Hampshire will release birth certificates for births before 1911 to anyone but more contemporary documents will only be provided to direct family members (spouses, children). The state places similar restrictions on death certificates.

New York will only provide genealogy-related birth certificates if the record is more than 75 years old and the person named is deceased. New Mexico’s restriction also allows direct family members access to records and includes the clause, “those who present tangible proof of legal interest in the requested record” opening the possibility of an attorney or similar official to receive a copy.

Protecting vital records

Identity theft affects about 1 in 16 people in the country, at a rate of 15 million cases per year (the majority being credit card theft), prompting government officials to warn individuals to protect their vital records and release them only when necessary. Places like schools may require a student’s social security number without having the security in place to protect against a data breach. Even government agencies have suffered data breaches like DMV workers selling identities for fraudulent purposes.

The federal government has enhanced penalties for aggravated identity theft, which may include immigration violations

One of the most egregious recent episodes of identity theft was a data breach at Equifax, a consumer reporting agency that records individuals’ credit information for lending purposes. In early 2018 about 145 million personal identities were stolen by hackers, including social security numbers, birthdates, addresses, and some driver’s licenses. This information is enough to apply for credit cards, mortgages, and loans in another person’s name. Filing false tax returns and collecting refunds is another trend in identity theft that involves accessing another person’s social security number, birthdate, and address.

Authorities suggest contacting banks, credit card companies, and reporting agencies such as TransUnion and Equifax to put a freeze on accounts if a data breach has affected you.