Home > Guide to Court Records
Court records can be a key component to a successful genealogical search. These records offer a glimpse of the life of an individual, through events like adoption, divorce and naturalization. In addition, court records may provide information about a person’s brushes with the law, whether misdemeanor or felony offenses have been reported. Some court records might include birth and death records as well. Court documents can be complicated to track down, since you must know the precise location of the recording to find the documents in question. However, online public records searches have made the location of court records, as well as many other public documents, much easier to manage.
Types of Court Records
There are many different types of records of file in local, state and federal courts today. Some of the most common for public records searches include:
- Adoption Records
- Divorce Records
- Probate Records
- Criminal Records
- Naturalization Records
All of these court records are typically found at the court in which they were filed. However, some records, such as divorce and criminal records, may be found through other sources as well. These records might be used for a variety of purposes, including background checks on prospective employees or as part of a genealogical search. They may be retrieved for personal or legal purposes as well.
Information Found in Court Records
The information contained within court records may vary depending on the type of record and the location where it is filed. Divorce records typically contain the names of both spouses, the date and location of the divorce and possibly the children involved in the separation. Some will also include property and financial information that was a part of the divorce settlement.
Probate records are created at the time of death of an individual, for the purpose of finding the will and identifying survivors. These records might include the name of the deceased, date and location of death, surviving family members and the assets held by the deceased.
Criminal records may include both felony and misdemeanor offenses, as well as traffic violations and arrest records. Sex offender listings are also available, usually in a separate record available to the general public through online sources.
Naturalization records contain information about when an immigrant to the U.S. became a legal citizen of the country.
Locations for Court Records
The location of the court records is usually based on where the records were filed. Court records may be found at county courts, state courts and federal courts. It is helpful to know the location prior to your public records search; however, some online search service will look up that information for you if you don’t have it readily available. In these cases, the name of the individual, the state and the type of record you are searching for will suffice. Some courts will require a personal visit to retrieve official copies of documents, while others will make the information available online or by mail.
Restriction to Court Records Access
While many court records are considered public information, access is restricted to some types of documents. Adoption records are sealed after the adoption is finalized and can only be opened by a court order. These records usually contain the names of the child, biological parents and adoptive parents. Accessibility to adoption records have been a source of controversy in many state of late, as adopted children want access to those files later in life to learn more about their heritage.
Divorce records may also be restricted in some states, accessible only by the individuals on the document, their children or legal representatives of any of these parties. Usually, this restriction is lifted after a period of time, such as 50-75 years after the date the divorce was finalized. Although most criminal records are a matter of public records, access to records involving juveniles is denied to the general public. It is important to review the specific laws in the state where you are searching to find out whether access is restricted to any public records in that state.
Online Court Records Search
While court records can create a somewhat complex research process, the availability of online public records has made the process much easier. Online public records services often do the majority of the footwork for you. All you have to do is enter the name and location of the person you are looking for, as well as the type of file you want to find. In most cases, you can get sufficient information about the record to head to the appropriate government office and request the document you need. There is typically a charge for official document copies, although free public records found online can be printed and saved if an official copy is not needed.