Vital Records

Vital Records
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:

Where to Write for Vital Records

A private site called keeps a list of state and county agencies that keep vital records. It includes their addresses and links to their websites. 

Sample Death Certificates:

Vital Records Online

Very few government agencies make their vital records available online or even provide searchable databases for locating the records.

One agency which 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:

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:

Birth, Death, Fetal Death, Still Birth & Marriage Certificates

County 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:

County Registrars and Recorders

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.

Republishing Policy

This content may not be republished in print or digital form without express written permission from Berkeley Advanced Media Institute. Please see our Content Redistribution Policy.

© 2020 The Regents of the University of California

Upcoming Workshops: