Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Difficulty of Obtaining Vital Records in Pennsylvania

For various reasons, obtaining a birth or death certificate from the Pennsylvania Division of Vital Records is a long process. The purpose of this post is not to disparage those who work there or the office itself. All birth and death records from 1906 to the present are only kept here, so they must deal with an extremely large number of requests.

I am wondering how long it usually takes those of you in other states to obtain a birth or death record, and about the complexity of the process for doing so.

Here is how it is done in Pennsylvania:

As far as I can see, the only option for obtaining birth or death records from 1906 or later is to submit a mail request to the Division of Vital Records. The website above states that you should receive the record (if present) within 12-14 weeks after they process your payment. In my experience, it usually takes longer. For example, I just received some death certificates in the mail a few days ago. I sent out requests for them in late February, with the payment being processed in early March.

There are options for submitting an online request, but according to their website, this service is not available for certificates needed for genealogical research.

It is also possible to go to the nearest Vital Records office and submit a walk-in request; however, same-day processing is not available for genealogy requests. This is the only exclusion listed. So, I assume that means that you drop off the form there, and it is mailed to you at a later time. The website does not specify how long this typically takes. Also, some offices can only forward the request on to the New Castle office for most records (like the Pittsburgh office, which only holds records for Pittsburgh deaths from 2001 to the present).

Also, in order to make a request a copy of a birth certificate, you must fall under one of the following categories (from the website):
Person named on the birth certificate, who is 18 years of age or older (if under 18, immediate family member must apply)
  • Legal representative
  • Husband / wife
  • Parent / step-parent*
  • Brother / sister / half-brother / half-sister
  • Son / daughter / stepson* / stepdaughter*
  • Grandparent / great grandparent (specify maternal or paternal)
  • Grandchild / great grandchild
  • Power of Attorney (for person named on birth certificate or immediate family member listed above)
*A step-parent or step-child is required to submit parents' marriage record supporting their relationship.

Also from the site, to request a death certificate, you must be a(n):
  • Legal representative of decedent's estate
  • Immediate family member
  • Extended family member who indicates a direct relationship to the decedent
  • Power of Attorney  (Please note that a Power of Attorney document is no longer valid upon the death of the individual)
You must know the date of birth or death in order for your request to be processed. This can be difficult, as obtaining that date is often the reason for making the request in the first place. If you don't know the date, you can request a multi-year search within a span of 2-10 years for $34, and pay $25 more for each additional span of 2-10 years (so, if I know my ancestor died between 1910 and 1930, a multi-year search would cost me $59).

A copy of photo identification is required with either request. Notice there are no allowances here for professional researchers, so a researcher cannot request a certificate on behalf of a client.

Please see the link in the first paragraph for additional requirements.

To me, this does not seem like an efficient process, and does not encourage an exchange of genealogical information. I can understand privacy concerns for records of a relatively "young" age, but what concerns could there be for a person who died in 1906?

I assume that the reason that genealogical requests are excluded from online ordering is that they are of a lower priority, understandably, than many others - like requests made in order to settle an estate. However, I'm not sure why this means that online ordering is altogether unavailable. Couldn't your genealogy request just be put further down in the "queue"?

For these reasons, I am again asking that those of you with an interest in Pennsylvania records review this petition from People for Better Pennsylvania Historical Records.

Hopefully, with the recent general increase in interest in genealogy, more people will become interested in reforming this process.

I'm also interested in what researchers in other states have to say about this. Is the process for obtaining state vital records easier, harder or about the same in your state?