Genealogy Q&A: How to Beat Vital Record Restrictions at State Archives

By Alvie Davidson

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Q: How do I obtain vital records when the state requires me to be an immediate family member or have authorization of the deceased’s family?

A: There’s no single magic bullet for solving this issue or evading vital-records rules. In my years of researching probates, my patience has been tested numerous times. But a researcher can get creative to get around the bureaucratic restrictions that sometimes don’t make sense, short of breaking the law.

Vital records most often refer to birth, marriage, death and divorce records held at the state level. Here, learn the different types of information you can find in each.

The first thing to do is review all the state’s rules for accessing vital records and look for a loophole in how they are written or formulated. Some states, such as New York and New Jersey, have statutes prohibiting public access. But reaching out to the clerk or deputy clerk in the local or state vital-records office with a logical and reasonable explanation for the need of a birth record will sometimes yield favorable results. Pleading your case to this person can sometimes be helpful in accessing vital records on a one-time shot. Always get the clerk’s name so you can direct any future correspondence to the friendly person who offered you a lifeline.
Sometimes a family attorney merely writing on behalf of his or her office to request the record can get results. Minnesota’s vital-records rules, for example, state simply that a request from “a licensed attorney” will be honored without question.

Ready to find your ancestors’ official birth, marriage and death certificates? The Statewide Vital Records chart has all the details you need to know for each state.

In recent years, numerous states, such as California and Illinois, have started to issue “uncertified copies” or “informational copies” of some vital records. These are clearly stamped as “not valid for identification” and may not be subject to the stringent restrictions. These documents contain just as much information as a document that has “certified” stamped all over it.

A version of this article appeared in the December 2009 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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Wildly varying access rules and availability make a tangled maze of your ancestors’ state-level vital records. Let us guide you through.
If carefully reviewed, birth, marriage and death records can contain a wealth of information. Here are some unexpected details in vital records.
When it comes to ease of obtaining your ancestors’ vital records, not all states are created equal. Here are five states that make it simple to get them.