In genealogy research Vital Records refers to information, usually held and maintained by a government department, about people's life events - primarily birth, marriage, divorce and death. Today in the United States most of the Vital Records information resides with the states and counties where the life events occurred.
To obtain the information contained in these Vital Records it is usually necessary to order a copy of a birth certificate, marriage license, divorce decree and/or death certificate. However in some cases government departments have put some of their Vital Records information online where it is available to the general public.
A Birth Certificate is a document that lists information that was filed with a government department or agency shortly after an individual's birth.
The Vital Records of an individual's birth vary from country to country and are not uniform in the United States where the records are usually maintained by the state where an individual was born. In some states births recorded prior to the early 20th century are maintained by the county, city or town where individuals were born.
Most birth records were prepared and filed with a government department by the hospital or attending physician when an individual was born. An individual's birth record usually contains the name, city or town where the birth took place, the date of birth and the names and address of the parents. Usually you will also find the maiden name of the mother and sometimes you can find the birthplace of the baby's parents and the parents' occupations.
A Marriage License is a document that lists information that was filed with a government department or agency around the time two individuals were married.
You can usually find the bride's and groom's full names, the date of the marriage and the location where the marriage took place. You might also find other information, such as the names and birthplaces of the bride's and groom's parents, the addresses of the bride and groom and the names of the witnesses to the marriage.
See our case study, Surname-Forums-Hart, to learn how valuable information gained from marriage Vital Records can lead to the discovery of additional information about the bride and groom's parents and siblings.
A divorce decree is a court’s order granting termination of a marriage. Usually the decree will indicate the court's ruling with regard to alimony and property division and if there are children the ruling with regard to custody, child support and visitation.
Divorce records are usually maintained in the courthouse in the county in which the divorce was obtained.
A Death Certificate is a document that lists information that was filed with a department or agency shortly after an individual's death.
You will usually find the name, age, occupation, address, cause and date of death of the deceased. You will also usually find the birth date and place of birth of the deceased as well as the name of the deceased's spouse. In many cases you will also find the names of the deceased's parents (including the mother's maiden name).
See our case study, California-Death-Index-Kishbaugh, where we learned the names and places of birth of the deceased's parents from a death certificate.
Obtain Vital Records
To obtain any Vital Records you can first go to the website of the state where a life event took place. Then you can determine if a record exists and where the information is stored.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides links to all the states and territories and so this is a good place to start your Vital Records search. Here is the link to that page which is entitled Where to Write for Vital Records.
Genealogy Search Tip
Find a Death Date
In many cases you can find the death date of a deceased US citizen in the Social Security Death Index.
The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) provides information about deceased people who had registered with Social Security - many people born before 1900 had registered. See our discussion of the Social Security Death Index.