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What Are Vital Records?

By Rebecca Mecomber
Updated May 16, 2024
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Vital records are the collection of documents or digitally recorded information chronicling certain life events of individual citizens in one central location, such as a city or regional registrar or other government office. Examples of vital records include birth and death certificates, public records such as marriage licenses and divorce papers, civil union certificates and other vital documents relating to the citizens of a particular jurisdiction. Vital records might be necessary to prove citizenship, spousal benefits, genealogy and more.

The obtaining and managing of vital records usually lies with the court system where the event took place. For a birth at a city hospital, the hospital initiates the vital records with a certificate of live birth. The certificate is registered with the local registrar. Finally, the clerk also submits a copy to the appropriate regional government office.

For centuries in western cultures, long before civil records existed, churches often recorded and preserved the vital records of its members. Ministers or clerks managed documents that recorded births, marriages, deaths, burials and certain religious ceremonies. Genealogists use ancient church records to discover ancestries, study migration movements and legitimize birth records and death records.

With the progressive rise of civil governments, courts and county registers of deeds took over the responsibility of keeping vital records. Attending physicians, clergy members, justices of the peace and other officiating attendants were required to register certificates with government agencies. Since the beginning, vital records have traditionally been recorded in paper document and carbon copy forms. Since as early as the 1970s, governments have used digitized forms of vital records stored in computer databases.

Vital records are necessary for civil government and society, as these vital records prove the existence or viability of legal claims or defenses. A birth certificate is required to register to vote, to marry and to obtain a driver's license. Life insurance companies require proof of death before distributing death policy benefits to beneficiaries. Vital records also provide reams of useful data for demographers and genealogists.

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