The Documents You Need: Birth Certificates and other Vital Records

a picture of white folders containing the important documents checklist

Although you don’t need to use them regularly, you should have copies of all your vital records in a safe place in case you do need them, you can create an Important Documents Checklist just so that you’ll have everything in order. Vital records include your birth certificate, marriage certificate, and divorce decree.

If your spouse or child died, you may also need their death certificates. If you’re the executor of an estate, you should also have the deceased’s death certificate, too. In case you don’t have them, or can’t find them, here are instructions for getting them and tips on storing them safely.

Creating an Important Documents Checklist: Ordering Vital Records

Vital records are recorded and stored in the county in which they occurred. Birth and death certificates can usually also be obtained from the state records office. If you’re not sure where the event occurred, start with the state office and then work down from there. In most cases, you’ll need a certified copy of the record, not a photocopy. Follow these steps to find the records you need:

County Marriage, Death, Birth, and Divorce Records

  1. Visit the County Recorder’s website.
  2. Click the link for vital records or birth certificates.
  3. Follow the instructions for ordering your records online. Most states charge a processing fee. You’ll receive a certified copy by mail.

State Birth, Marriage, and Death Records

If the county can’t find your records, then follow these instructions for acquiring them from the state:

  1. Visit the official state website.
  2. Look for a section for residents or citizens.
  3. Look for a link to birth certificates or vital records.
  4. Follow the instructions to complete your online order. The certified records will come by mail. Some states require you to contact county health offices or request the certificate by mail.
  5. If you can’t find ordering information, call your county records office for further instructions.

Some states have contracted with VitalChek to provide online record ordering.

Storing Your Records

Unlike the emergency documents I discussed last week, you have more flexibility in storing your records.

Birth Certificate

Unless you have a young child, you probably don’t need to keep birth certificates in your home. It’s find to keep them in a safe deposit box at a local bank. If you’re planning to apply for a new license, check the requirements a week or two in advance in case you need to visit the bank to pick up your certificate. If you don’t have a safe deposit box, store the certificate in your emergency box.

Marriage Certificate

If you’re a newlywed, then you need to have a few copies of your certificate. I didn’t change my name, so I only needed one copy, but women who change their names will need to mail them to the social security office, the DMV, credit card companies, and other locations in order to change the documents. We needed to show a copy to our auto insurance company to merge our policies, but we didn’t need to show any proof of marriage to merge our other accounts.

Newlyweds should keep the certificates in their emergency box. Couples married more than a year or so can keep them in a safe deposit box.

Death Certificate

If you’re the executor of a recent estate, or a child or parent recently died, you’ll need a few copies of the death certificate to present to banks, insurance companies, and government agencies. After a year, or after all the affairs have been tied up, you can safely keep it in your safe deposit box.

Divorce Decree

The policy for divorce decrees is similar to that for marriage and death certificates. Once you’ve separated all your accounts and unmerged your lives, the decree should be kept in a safe deposit box.

Although it’s easy to obtain copies of your records, repeatedly ordering them can add up quickly. Most cost more than $10 each. Rather than going to the trouble and expense, simply store them safely in a safe deposit box or your emergency box for the times when you do need them.

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