Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"Open" State Vital Records: The Bad and the Ugly

One of Several Posts about Open Government Laws and Genealogy

Previously, we spotlighted several states that are particularly "genealogy-friendly" concerning access to state vital records. Now we wade into the swamp of vital records-access horribles.

At the edge of the swamp are states that have unreasonably long (100 years or more for birth records; more than fifty years for death records; or any period for ordinary marriages and divorces) confidentiality periods. These states include:

  • Alabama: 125 years for birth records!
  • Alaska: 100 years for birth records; fifty years for marriage records
  • Arkansas: 100 years for birth records
  • Delaware: 100 years for birth records
  • Hawaii: 75 years for death and marriage records
  • Idaho: 100 years for birth records; 50 years for marriage and divorce records
  • Iowa: 75 years for death, marriage and divorce records; even then, records are simply open for inspection and copying; no copies issued by the state except to persons of a certain relationship.
  • Louisiana: 100 years for birth records
  • Michigan: 100 years for birth records (on the other hand, anyone can have access to Michigan death records).
  • New Jersey: 50 years for marriage records
  • New Mexico: 100 years for birth records, but not prior to individual's death (but see below).
  • New York: 50 years for marriage records AND both husband and wife are known to be deceased.
  • Oregon: 100 years for birth records
  • Rhode Island: 100 years for birth records
  • Wyoming: 50 years for marriages and divorces

Vital Records Access Hell

  • Georgia: Birth certificates appear to be available only to (1) the person whose record of birth is registered; (2) either parent, guardian, or temporary guardian of the person whose record of birth or death is registered; (3) the living legal spouse or next of kin or the legal representative of the person whose record of birth or death is registered; (4) a court of competent jurisdiction upon its order or subpoena; or (5) any governmental agency, state or federal, provided that such certificate shall be needed for official purposes. This is my reading of Georgia Code section 31-10-26(a) & (e). The law appears to prohibit the issuance of informational or uncertified copies of birth certificates and even abstracts or indices of birth records. If I'm reading this incorrectly, will some Georgia genealogist or lawyer please set me straight.
  • Indiana: Birth and death records are closed to the public and may be disclosed only (1) to an applicant having a direct interest in the matter recorded; (2) when the information is necessary for the determination of personal or property rights or for compliance with state or federal law; or (3) in any extraordinary case that the state registrar determines is a direct tangible and legitimate public interest. That's my interpretation of Indiana Code section 16-37-1-10. If I'm reading this incorrectly, will some Indiana genealogist or lawyer please set me straight.
  • Kansas: One of the worst! "Currently, the Office of Vital Statistics does allow requests for genealogical research. Pre-1940 records may be requested by an individual related as at least a cousin. Post 1940 records must be requested by an immediate family member." Kansas Department of Health and Environment vital statistics website (viewed 3/27/2008)
  • Mississippi: "Vital Records are not considered public access documents. Certified copies of records in the custody of the Department of Health may be obtained by persons having a legitimate and tangible interest in such records." Mississippi State Department of Health Vital Records Rules and Regulations (viewed 3/27/2008). The statute says:
    • Records in the possession of the Mississippi Department of Health, bureau of vital statistics, which would be of no legitimate and tangible interest to a person making a request for access to such records, shall be exempt from the provisions of the Mississippi Public Records Act of 1983; provided, however, nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit any person with a legitimate and tangible interest in such records from having access thereto. Miss.Code 1972, 41-57-2 (1983).
  • New Mexico: "New Mexico Vital Records are restricted access records and are only issued to immediate family members or individuals who demonstrate tangible legal interest," so says the New Mexico Department of Health's website. But, that seems to contradict the statute, which says that records may be disclosed 100 years after birth (but not before person's death) and 50 years after death. See N.M.Stat. 24-14-27. So the Land of Enchantment makes the hell list not only for being unreasonable, but for confusing people as well.
  • Pennsylvania: Vital records are not open to the public. Eligible requestors are (1) person named on a birth record; (2) legal representative of decedent's estate; (3) immediate family members; (4) extended family members who indicate a direct relationship to the decedent. Pennsylvania Department of Health vital records website (viewed 3/27/2008).
  • South Carolina: Entitled recipients: (1) the person named on a birth certificate (if eighteen (18) years of age); (2) the parent(s) named on the birth certificate; or the guardian, or a legal representative of one of these persons. On the other hand, any applicant may be provided a statement that a death occurred, including the date and county of death. South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control vital records website (viewed 3/27/2008).

There are several states (some listed here, some not) that say that records are open to persons with "a direct and tangible interest," or a "legitimate interest," or words to that effect. Without some mitigating factors, this should be enough to consign a state to Vital Records Access Hell. These phrases frequently have no definition, leaving a requestor to the whims of a vital records clerk. It certainly seems to me that genealogical research is a "legitimate," "direct," or "tangible" interest!

Special Place in Hell for Online Records Sites

This series has not been focused on online records. A state can earn kudos without having online acess to its records. But if a jurisdiction is going to have on-line access, it should be convenient and affordable. Alas, such is not the case with the Caddo Parish (La.) Clerk of Court's office, so they are awarded this year's SPIHFORS. The Caddo clerk's online marriage records search function frequently doesn't work properly. And then there's the matter of fees for the other databases: a $100 "setup" fee and $30.00 a month to view images! Outrageous! Just about fifty miles west of Shreveport, the seat of Caddo Parish, in Gregg County, Texas (much smaller in population than Caddo Parish), the County Clerk provides free online access to some of the same types of documents for which Caddo wants exorbitant fees.


John said...

I recently was searching for a New Mexico death certificate, and came across the website, and assumed there'd be no way to get it, since everyone they defined as an 'immediate family member' was deceased. (parents, grandparents, sibling, child, or current spouse)

Then I discovered that the Family History Library has the death certificates on microfilm for 1889-1945, which could help some people.

isos said...

You forgot Florida. In order to get a birth certificate, you have to be the person on it or have the death certificate. In order to get the death certificate, you have to be the spouse, child, or grandchild. My great-grandmother died in 2002, but I have to get my mother to fill out the forms and send a copy of her driver's license to get the death certificate so that I can get a birth certificate (she was born in 1906!).

John said...

The restricted access for New Mexico is definitely Certified Copies only.

The US GenWeb NM project offers to obtain a photocopy for $1.50 (If it appears in their index, which so far goes up to 1949.)