Vital Records definition

As an American citizen, you will need your vital records (like your birth certificate) on several occasions. They are essential documents, often required to complete bureaucratic and legal processes.

It is important that you keep your vital records safe at all times and apply for a replacement should one of your documents go lost or damaged.

What Is a Vital Record?

Vital records are records of important life events kept by the Government. In the United States, they include:

  • Birth records. Modern birth certificates include the place and date of birth as well as essential information on the parents and child.
  • Death records. Death certificates usually feature the date, time, and cause of death but can also include more information on the deceased such as their date of birth, occupation, state of residence, parents’ names, and more.
  • Marriage certificates and marriage licenses. Marriage records include basic personal data on the bride and groom, their occupations and residences, as well as information on their previous marriages (if applicable.)
  • Divorce records and divorce decrees. Modern divorce records indicate the date and reason for the divorce as well as information on the husband and wife and their children.

How Far Back Do Vital Records Go?

Different authorities and institutions in the United States started gathering vital statistics at different times and in different forms. It was not a uniform process.

Individuals carrying out genealogical research can check several sources for early forms of vital records, such as (among others):

  • The Vital Records National Archive
  • Town clerk records from colonial America
  • Church registers
  • Orphanage and birth home records
  • Family Bibles
  • Census records
  • Property deeds
  • Casualty lists from the US military
  • Online libraries specializing in family history and genealogy records

In the 20th century, states started setting up vital statistics registration systems and passing laws to regulate vital records. Nowadays, vital records are kept and issued by each state’s central Vital Records office (usually part of the state’s Department of Health) as well as county clerk offices.

Why Do You Need Vital Records in the US?

American citizens may need their vital records several times in their lifetime. Different forms of vital records serve different legal purposes — for example, birth certificates are required to apply for a US passport while divorce decrees may have to be provided to obtain a new marriage license.

Here are just some of the uses of vital records in the US:

  • Prove identity and nationality
  • Apply for government IDs like a US passport or driver’s license
  • Obtain/replace social security cards
  • Sign up for the military and enroll in school
  • Get married
  • Apply for government benefits
  • Access pension and insurance benefits
  • Claim inheritance
  • Take part in court proceedings

What to Do If You Cannot Find Your Vital Records

Vital records can go lost, for example, during a natural disaster or when moving houses. Some people are not issued their vital records (like their birth certificate) in the first place, for example because they were not born in a hospital or public facility and their birth was never officially registered. As we have seen above, however, vital records are extremely important documents and the moment you figure out that you are missing one, you should take action.

Here are things you can do when you realize that your documents have gone missing:

  • Report it to the authorities (especially if your document was stolen and you need to protect yourself against identity theft)
  • Apply for your document for the first time with the relevant office if it was not issued in the first place
  • Order a birth certificate or other vital record document replacement as soon as possible

How to order a certificate replacement

To request a certified copy of a vital record:

  1. Fill out the application form
  2. Sign the form and pay the relevant application fee
  3. Post the application package to the Vital Records office or submit it online (only available in some states)

Your vital record document will arrive in the mail at your home address.

Vital Records are issued by the Vital Records office of the state where the life event was registered. To obtain an official copy of your vital record, you will be asked to prove your identity, usually with the help of other relevant documents. Make sure that you know the requirements before you start your vital record application.

Remember: even though you want to keep your vital records safe, laminating them is never a good idea since this often means invalidating them for official use as the document’s security features are lost in the laminating process.

You can photocopy your own vital records but these copies will not be considered valid for official use. The best thing to do to protect your vital records is to store them in a safe place.