Research in Vital Records: Births, Deaths & Marriages

Learn how to use vital records of birth, death and marriage to research your family history.
Getty / Kathryn8

Vital records—records of births, marriages and deaths—are kept in some form by the majority of countries around the world. Maintained by civil authorities, they are one of the best resources for helping you to build your family tree due to their:

  1. Completeness
    Vital records usually cover a large percentage of the population and include a wide variety of information for linking families.
  2. Reliability
    Because they are usually created close to the time of the event by someone with personal knowledge of the facts, and because most governments have measures in place to try and ensure their accuracy, vital records are a fairly reliable form of genealogical information.
  3. Availability 
    Because they are official documents, governments have made an effort to preserve vital records, with newer records being found in local government offices and older records residing in a variety of record repositories and archives.

Why a Vital Record May Not Exist

Many British and other European countries began keeping civil registrations of birth, death and marriage at the national level in the nineteenth century. Prior to that time these events can be found recorded in the registers of christenings, marriages and burials maintained by parish churches. Vital records in the United States are a little more complicated because the responsibility for registering vital events is left to the individual states. Some U.S. cities, such as New Orleans, Louisiana, were requiring registration as early as 1790, while some states did not begin until well into the 1900s (e.g. South Carolina in 1915). The scenario is much the same in Canada, where the responsibility of civil registration falls to the individual provinces and territories.

As we research in vital records, it is important to also recognize that in the early days of registration, not all births, marriages and deaths were reported. The compliance rate may have been as low as 50-60% in earlier years, depending upon the time and place. People living in rural areas often found it a real inconvenience to take a day from work to travel many miles to the local registrar. Some people were suspicious of the government's reasons for wanting such information and simply refused to register. Others may have registered the birth of one child, but not others. Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths is much more accepted today, however, with current rates of registration closer to 90-95%.

How to Find Vital Records

When searching for birth, marriage, death and divorce documents to build out a family tree, it is often easiest to start with our most recent ancestors. It may seem futile to request records when we already know the facts, but what we think is true may actually be an incorrect assumption. Vital records may also include little nuggets of information that will either corroborate our work or lead us in new directions. 

It may also be tempting to start a search for vital records with the birth record, but the death record may be a better choice. Because the death record is the most recent record available about an individual, it is often the most likely to be available. Death records are also often easier to obtain than other vital records, and older death records in many states can even be accessed online.

Vital records, especially birth records, are protected by privacy laws in many areas. Laws pertaining to birth records are more stringent for a variety of reasons, including the fact that they can reveal illegitimacy or adoption, or are sometimes misused by criminals to establish a fraudulent identity. Access to these records may be restricted to the person named on the certificate and/or immediate family members. The time period for restriction may be as little as ten years after the date of the event, to as long as 120 years. Some governments will allow earlier access to birth records if the request is accompanied by a copy of the death certificate to prove that the individual is deceased. In some locations a signed declaration that you are a family member is enough proof, but most vital records offices will also require a photo ID. In France, they require complete documentation (birth, marriages and death records) proving your descent from the individual in question!

To begin your search for vital records you will need to know some basic information:

  • the full name of your ancestor
  • the approximate date of the event
  • the approximate location of the event

With your request you should also include:

  • your relationship to the individual named on the certificate
  • the purpose of your request
  • your full name, address and telephone number
  • your signature

With the burgeoning interest in genealogy, some vital records departments just do not have the staff to carry out extensive searches. They may require more exact information than what I have just mentioned in order to provide you with a certificate. It is well worth researching the specific requirements of the office you are contacting with your request before you waste your time and theirs. Fees and turn-around time to receive the certificates will also vary widely from location to location.

Tip! Be sure to note in your request that you want the long form (a full photocopy) rather than a short form (usually a transcription from the original record).

Where to Access Vital Records