Being a journalist means being resourceful. Presented with a name, you know where to dig. One place to hunt for leads is your state’s vital records office, which keeps certificates of birth, death, marriage and divorce. How much these forms tell you depends on state law.
In Massachusetts, for example, a death certificate can tell you a lot: the place of death, the cause of death, the deceased’s address and name of his or her spouse, who reported the death and where that person lives. Anyone can go see this information, for free. A certified copy (the only type of copy available in Massachusetts) issued on the spot costs $20.
If you are unable to visit the vital records office in Boston, you can order a copy online. Massachusetts, like many other states, sends visitors to VitalCheck, a commercial company. Other commercial companies exist, though it’s a good idea to use the one appointed by the state agency. The agency should have a website that ends in .gov or another official domain such as .il.us (Illinois) or .mn.us (Minnesota).
Public records laws can vary wildly by state. Death certificates in Florida do not list the cause of death until 50 years have passed, unless you are a close relative. In Illinois, only close relatives or someone with a property claim can access birth or death records. Back in Massachusetts, birth certificates are public — unless the person’s parents were unmarried at the time of the birth. Later, when a person born out of wedlock marries, his marriage certificate is not available to the public without a court order. (Asked about these regulations, an official at the vital records office suggested they are a legacy of the state’s Puritan background, when children born out of wedlock were stigmatized.)
These records are generally available a few weeks after the event. If you are looking for the death certificate of someone who passed away more recently, for example, check the medical examiner’s office in the town where the person died.
Vital records offices keep documents for roughly 80 to 120 years. Older records may be kept at the state archives, and are generally available with fewer restrictions. (Very old records, like from the 17th and 18th centuries, may be at a local historical society.) Below, we list official sites and some other helpful resources, such as tools to compare states’ public records laws.
- The National Center for Health Statistics has a list of vital records offices, which are usually run by the state’s public health department. Here are a few selected offices: California, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia. The Center also runs the National Vital Statistics System, which collects data from around the country.
- Requests for the record of a U.S. citizen’s death abroad must be notarized and sent to the State Department. More on vital records of U.S. citizens abroad is available from the National Center for Health Statistics.
On public records laws
- The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit, publishes a guide to local public records laws in every state (check out their PDFs).
- The National Freedom of Information Coalition, FOIA Wiki and the FOIA Project may also help.
The National Archives in Washington D.C. does not keep vital records because they are not federal documents. But it lists other resources, including guidance on finding some census records as well as adoption records, burial records, military records and reports of Americans who died abroad.
The Social Security Death Index (also known as the Death Master File) is a government database that includes the name, birthdate, date of death and Social Security number of most Americans who have died since 1962. It is often used by genealogists, who can purchase information through commercial sites like Ancestry.com. The entire database is available from the National Technical Information Service for an annual fee.