Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Open State Vital Records: Some of the Best States

One of Several Posts about Open Government Laws and Genealogy

I've made a brief survey of state vital records laws and here present some of the "best" states in terms of "openness." These determinations are based on several factors: whether law provides that vital records are "open" or "public"; whether reasonable "confidential periods" are imposed; whether reasonable fees are required; whether procedures for obtaining records are uncomplicated, and whether in my sole judgment, the state is more user-friendly than not when allowing access to vital records.

A note about some terms used by states to describe their records policies: some states say that they are "open" or "public" records states, while others say they are "closed" records states. Do not put too much emphasis on these self-descriptions. The fact is that states use these terms without much consideration. As a result, some so-called "open" records states may have, in practice, more restrictive access than so-called "closed" records states.

In my view, a confidentiality period longer than fifty years for death records or seventy-five years for birth records is unreasonable. And any confidentiality period for ordinary marriage records is unreasonable.

Now, some of the best states for access to vital records:

  • Arizona: supposedly a "closed" records state. Allows public access to non-certified copies of birth records after 75 years, death recotds after 50 years. What else makes Arizona great: the Arizona Dpeartment of Health Services has placed birth and death records online.
  • Illinois: Uncertified birth records after 1916 available after 75 years; uncertified death records after 20 years. What else make Illinois great: very good website; no images but easy to search.
  • Wisconsin: Uncertified copies of birth and death records are available to anyone who applies. Caveat: No birth record is public concerning (1) a child born to unmarried parents when paternity has not been established, or (2) a child born to unmarried parents when paternity was established by court order.


Miriam said...

Craig, I feel I must add Washington State to your list! ANYONE may order a copy of a Washington State birth, death, marriage or divorce certificate without restrictions. Our prices are reasonable, too. Additionally, the FHL has microfilmed many birth and death certificates, helping to bring down the costs of obtaining them.

Plus, we have the amazing Washington State Digital Archives, the first in the nation. Other states have come to Washington to learn how to digitize both their hard copy records AND their digital records (such as former governors' websites and official emails).

Craig Manson said...

Thanks, Miriam. I actually had Washington on the list in my first draft for exactly the reasons you cite. But then, I thought, this is too good to be true, so I took it off to research it further. I'm glad you confirmed this for us.

Chery said...


This is such helpful information! I must also give kudos to my home state of Washington. Unfortunately, none of the ancestors I research have any vital records here. :(

Ken Spangler said...


Thank you so much for such a great article. I should be ashamed of not knowing the laws here in Texas. I've been researching for 8 years and just assumed that birth and death records were off limits unless I was a son, grandson, or sibling of the deceased. Thanks for enlightening me to what is actually available.


SaraG said...

Craig, I have to disagree with you about Arizona, or at least portions of your opinion about Arizona. While it has great open records for those older vital records, getting current vital records (1960s and 1970s) is a pain in the BUTT. You have to send birth certificates for everyone you want a death certificate for (ie, for my great-grandmother I had to send copies of my grandmother's, mother's, and my birth certificate). I love the open records, but their "closed" records policy could use some work.

Sara G.

Craig Manson said...

Gosh, that does sound like a royal pain! That would be enough for Arizona to make the other list.

Taneya said...

Love the list! Must add NC however. Birth, Marriage and Death certificates are completely open and considered a matter of public record to be ordered by anyone. I do most of my ordering from county clerks directly at costs from 25 cents - one dollar per uncertified copy. With most of my family and ancestors being from NC, this has been wonderful for me! Ancestry has pretty good NC birth, death & marriage indexes too so it makes it a fairly easy to search for them!

Craig Manson said...

Thanks for the info, Taneya! North Carolina makes the best list, for sure!