Understanding Vital Records

Every person born in the United States in the last 100 or so years will most likely have some type of vital record. These records include birth and death certificates, and marriage licenses.  While vital records are considered public records, which can be searched for by anyone, only the persons’ named can order the originals except in the case of death or the individual is a minor. There is also an exception in the case of a family member doing genealogy research.

Birth certificates are probably the most accurate vital record because the information is provided by the parents at the time of birth. This information includes the full name, date of birth, names of the parents including the mother’s maiden name, and place of birth. Many people don’t use their full birth name making them harder to be searched for. There is also the dilemma of delayed birth certificates. In my own family, my paternal grandmother received a delayed birth certificate when she was to be married because she didn’t have one from birth. The information provided by her and her mother about the father was inaccurate because she had been adopted.

A death certificate is the least accurate of the vital records. The information for a death record is usually given by a member of the immediate family that is under duress because of the passing of their loved one. They might not give the same name that was given at birth but instead give a nickname that the person went by their whole life. There can often be mistakes about the birth date, place of birth, and also the names of the deceased persons’ parents.

When two people decide to be married they must apply for a marriage license. This is also considered a vital record. It will have their names, ages, and usually their fathers names. Marriage certificates can be very helpful in finding a female since her name is changed with each marriage.

Each vital record can play an important role in linking your ancestors to your family. Just keep in mind that human error can always play a part as well.


  • Pam Niska March 19, 2013, 10:11 pm

    Informative article! Thank you so much. Question: when you’re tired of doing your own geneology, would you like to to mine? :)

    • Kathy Lynch March 20, 2013, 12:01 am Kathy Lynch

      Thanks Pam…you know I would do anything for you!