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?


  1. In California, it is much easier. Any person can obtain a birth, marriage or death certificate for any other person by paying a fee. The certificate has a "Not to be used for identification purposes" across it. If a person needs a certificate for identification purposes, then they have to meet criteria similar to the ones you listed for PA. In addition, some birth (1905-1995), marriage (1960-1985) and Death (1905-1939, and 1940-1997) are available online on subscription sites. The Deaths 1940-1997 are available on Rootsweb and other sites for free.

    These are, I think, reasonable measures and make genealogy research fairly easy in California.

  2. Thanks Randy! I actually ordered 1 death certificate around the same time from CA, online, and it got here very quickly. I thought it was so odd that I could receive CA records so much faster than records from New Castle, PA, which is about 40 minutes north of me. I haven't had any further experience with CA records, though. Thank you for sharing these details. I agree, it seems like that is a very reasonable approach to making records available to researchers.

  3. Last summer I decided I needed ten death certificates. My husband and I decided to drive from Allegheny County to New Castle. I should have read the fine print because when I got there I found that they would not take "walk ins" I had to fill out each and every form and I paid my money.

    The staff was very nice and helpful. I received the certificate within two weeks. Their system is so antiquated and I will be glad to see it changed, but who knows how long it will take to index them.

  4. It would be wonderful if the Pennsylvania Access Law were passed. Digital images of older death certificates are available online for a number of states. Ohio's from 1908-1953 are at Check the death index website for a variety of info on each state:

  5. @Claudia - Yikes! I'm sorry you made that long trip only to find out there are no walk-ins for genealogy requests. Hopefully the petition has some effect; I know that many of us would be happy to help index :) At least you got your certificates within 2 weeks - that's good to know. It might be worth the drive to prevent a 12-14 week wait for a mail-in request.

    @Jean Ohio and other states have gone a long way towards indexing their records, and I love that some images are even available online. Thanks for the link, it's very helpful. I'm going to add it to the sidebar here.

  6. Whew, I never realized how difficult it is to get vital records in Pennsylvania. It's on my "to do" list to track down records for several ancestors who lived in PA. Your post is very helpful.