Home > Guide to Public Records
Public records document vital events in people’s lives, such as births, marriages and deaths. These records become official documentation of the event, which is filed at a government office or archive to be preserved as a part of history. When you launch a genealogy search to trace your roots or construct your family tree, these records become a very important part of the research process. It is important to know what types of public records are available, the information contained within the files, and how to go about obtaining these records for your own database.
Types of Public Records
There are many types of public records on file today, including:
- Birth and Death Records
- Marriage and Divorce Records
- Cemetery Records and Obituaries
- Military Records
- Court and Criminal Records
- Records for Genealogy Purposes
All of these records are kept on file at various local or state government offices. Some may be kept in archives managed by these agencies as well. By understanding how many public records are available today, it becomes easy to see why these information-packed files become such a significant part of any genealogical project. Public records also come in handy for personal reasons, such as a birth certificate used for identification or a death certificate required for managing an estate. Whether you are looking for public records for genealogical, personal or legal reasons, the search and retrieval process is fundamentally the same.
Information Found in Records
The information found in public records varies considerably, based on the public record type, the date of the event and the state in which it is recorded. Every state has their own requirements for creating public records, and these requirements may even change over time. In most cases, the full name of the person, as well as the date and location of the event are on the official record. Other information that might be found in a public records search include names of parents, last known address for the individual, medical information, names of spouses and children, or reason for the filing.
Locations for Public Records
The location for public records also varies based on document type and the state where the document was issued. Each state has its own system for storing documents of this kind. In many cases, vital records like birth and death certificates are on file with the state health department. Court records, as well as divorce records, can often be found at the court where the document was filed. Other public records might be stored in state or national archives, particularly records that date back many years. Because there are many possible locations where public records might be found, it is important to use an online public records search to locate documents much faster than if you had to search for them on your own.
Restriction to Public Records Access
It is important to note that access to some public records may be restricted for a period of time. For example, birth records are often limited to access by the individual on the certificate or immediate family members for up to 100 years after the date of birth. This rule is to protect the person on the document from identity theft, since birth certificates are considered an official form of identification. By the same token, access could be restricted to death, marriage and divorce records. Military records have also been restricted since the terrorist attacks on 9/11. When searching for public records, it is important to learn the laws of the state where the documents are held to determine if you have the legal right to access the documents in question.
Online Public Records Search
The Internet has made public records searches much easier today, by allowing much of the footwork to be done right on the computer. Instead of calling government offices or traveling to locations in person, you can now find all the information you need for a public records search with a simple click of the mouse. Searches that turn up documents may offer the ability to order copies of documents directly. Those that do not will often provide the contact information to the appropriate government office so you can request the documents you need. Usually there is a fee for acquiring official copies of public records.
While most people are hoping for access to free public records, obtaining an official copy of a document often requires a fee. However, with plenty of opportunity to search public records online, the cost — both in terms of time and money — to search for and retrieve public records has been greatly reduced today.