September 9, 2022
Like most genealogists, I have a large collection of birth and death certificates for my family. They’ve always been my go-to record because of the valuable information they contain. They’re one of the best places for finding a mother’s maiden name, place of birth or death and other vital facts.
Unfortunately, birth and death certificates aren’t always the easiest records to obtain. They can be especially difficult to get in the United States. In many states they were not mandated until the beginning of the twentieth century or even later. For example, North Carolina didn’t require they be kept until 1913. Some states started keeping them earlier, but very few required them until the last quarter of the nineteenth century. This means that birth and death certificates aren’t available for many earlier family members.
Even if a birth or death certificate was kept, it isn’t always available. It’s relatively easy to obtain a certificate for a direct ancestor such as a great grandparent. It’s more complicated to get certificates for more distant relatives. Recently, I wanted to obtain a birth certificate for an aunt who was born in Utah. My grandparents moved around often, so I wasn’t sure where my aunt had been born. Frustratingly, I couldn’t order her birth record since she was born in 1925. Utah has privacy laws making birth certificates private for 100 years after the birth. Death certificates are private for 50 years after a death.
Utah’s privacy laws are typical when it comes to obtaining birth and death certificates. These laws are meant to prevent identity theft. Everything I’ve read suggests that these laws don’t stop identity theft, but they do stymy someone like me who just wants to find out exactly where someone born 97 years ago was born.
Some states go even further in their privacy laws. There are states, such as Colorado, that keep their vital records completely private. If you are a direct descendant you can order a birth or death certificate. Otherwise, you’re out of luck. Colorado’s vital records website states that vital statistics are never public documents and will never be available online.
Even in cases where the certificates are available, I have noticed that the prices have risen in recent years. New Jersey, for example, charges $25 for each vital record certificate. If a genealogist has grandparents and great-grandparents who were all from New Jersey, birth and death certificates for all twelve of them will run $600. Even in today’s inflationary times, that’s a good bit of genealogical investment.
Luckily, some states such as Arizona, Utah and Missouri do publish their older birth and death certificates online. These are usually found on state archive websites or on some of the big genealogy databases such as Family Search and Ancestry. Usually, the states publish birth certificates from 100 years ago or more and death certificates from 50 years ago or more.
The rules for what is available vary greatly by state. The only thing an intrepid genealogist can do is to check what the requirements are for a state of interest. A Google search of a state name plus vital statistics usually leads directly to a state’s governmental vital records website.
If the records you want are available, it’s just a matter of gritting your teeth and paying the price. If not, obituaries, cemetery records and church records may be able fill in for birth and death certificates.