Records on births, deaths, marriages and divorces are kept on both the state and the county level. These are collectively known as “vital records.”
State and county offices have alphabetical name indexes for each of the different types of vital records.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention keeps a list of agencies in each state that keep vital records:
A private site called vitalrec.com keeps a list of state and county agencies that keep vital records. It includes their addresses and links to their websites.
Sample Death Certificates:
- John F. Kennedy Jr. – fatal plane crash – Smoking Gun website
Vital Records Online
Very few government agencies make their vital records available online or even provide searchable databases for locating the records.
One agency does is the federal Social Security Administration, which has a database of death records.
These records only include deaths that were reported to the Social Security Administration to discontinue benefits that had been provided to a person, or deaths reported by a surviving relative applying for benefits. So not all deaths are in the database.
There are private genealogy sites that have online databases that index some of the vital records that are in government databases.
You usually can do a free search by a person’s name to find what records are available. These sites then require registration to get more detailed information and charge a fee for viewing or ordering the records.
But even the free search often helps you discover if the Social Security Administration or a state agency has a vital record on a person.
Among the private genealogy sites that let you search their databases are:
- FamilySearch – a service provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
California Vital Records
In California, vital records are kept at the California Department of Public Health and at a local level at county recorders offices or county health offices.
In California there are almost no government websites with searchable databases for locating vital records.
California Department of Public Health
The California Department of Public Health in Sacramento keeps statewide birth, death and marriage certificates, as well as indexes of divorces.
You cannot just view the records, you have to purchase a copy of the certificates.
The office does not put its indexes of vital records online.
The office does have a website with instructions on how to order records:
In California, a county recorder’s office will keep an index of births, deaths and marriages that occurred in that county (divorce records are civil actions filed separately in a county superior court).
For recent births and deaths, the records are kept by the county health department.
Some counties allow you to check the index yourself at the agency’s office, but at others you have to ask a clerk to look up a name.
There almost always is a charge for getting a copy of any of the records. Most counties will not let you just view the records. You have to purchase a copy of a birth, death or marriage certificate (divorce records are civil filings and those can be reviewed for free at a county superior court).
The indexes and records rarely are available online.
A list of each of the county health departments and recorder’s offices that index birth, death and marriage certificates can be found at the state Center for Health Statistics Web site:
Here are Web sites for some county agencies in the Bay Area that handle vital records:
About this Tutorial
This tutorial was originally written by Paul Grabowicz for students in his Computer Assisted Reporting class, and later modified for public use.
Copyright UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism . Any code samples in these tutorials are provided under the MIT License
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