Birth, Marriage, and Death Registers


Birth, marriage, and death registers are important tools for genealogical research. These official documents can provide much of the information you need to construct a family tree.

About Vital Records

Birth, marriage, and death registers are often known as vital records because they document the most important events in a person's life. Each area has slightly different record keeping procedures, so you may not always find the same types of information from state to state. Generally, vital records will contain this basic information:

  • The full legal name of the person or persons involved in the event
  • The date of the event
  • The county, state, or town where the event took place

Birth records may contain the following:

  • The parents' full names, including the mother's maiden name
  • The parents' occupations
  • The family's address
  • The names of other children in the family
  • The baby's race

Marriage records may contain these facts:

  • The names and addresses of the bride and groom
  • The names and addresses of the couple's parents
  • Information about any previous marriages
  • Witnesses to the marriage

Death records may contain the following:

  • The deceased person's date and place of birth
  • The names of the deceased person's family members, including parents, spouse, and children
  • Who reported the death
  • Where the person is buried

When Were Records Kept?

Unfortunately, birth, marriage, and death registers weren't kept in the United States until the 1900s. Even at this point, records in rural areas may be spotty at best. If you are conducting research for a family tree project, start with the most recent records first, and then work your way back through each generation.

When you are searching for older records, remember that the general population had poor literacy skills in the 1800s and early 1900s. Misspellings of names were common, even in official documents. For example, "Pearce" may be spelled as "Pierce" in a birth record. RootsWeb has a Soundex Converter that can help you search for possible alternative spellings of your family's surname.

Who Can Request Records?

Because of concerns about privacy, states typically have specific rules about who is allowed to request vital records. For example, unless you can provide proof that you are a direct-line descendent, New York has the following time period requirements for obtaining vital records:

  • Birth certificates must be on file for 75 years, and the person must be deceased.
  • Marriage certificates must be on file for 50 years, and both parties must be deceased.
  • Death certificates must be on file for 50 years.

Records provided for genealogy research will be uncertified copies. If you need to have a certified copy of a vital record, there will likely be additional regulations to follow and fees to pay.

Obtaining Birth, Marriage, and Death Registers

Vital Records has a state-by-state listing of the contact agencies to request birth, marriage, and death registers. In many cases, vital records are obtained through the State Department of Health. Some states will allow you to order online, while others have forms that you must submit by mail. To get the most accurate results, include as much information as possible with your record request.

When requesting vital records, you can expect to pay a small fee for each copy you need for your genealogical research. Fees often range between $10 and $25, depending upon the state. Processing time is most often between 30 and 60 days, although some states report processing times of up to six months.

If you are on a tight budget and don't mind doing some extra legwork, you may be able to obtain free records to assist in your genealogical research. Please review the following LoveToKnow Genealogy articles for additional information:

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Birth, Marriage, and Death Registers