Accessing Vital Records and Other Records Documenting Significant Life Milestones in Alabama

Poet Joyce Kilmer wrote that “life is a highway and its milestones are the years.” Within families, a birth might be documented in a baby book, a marriage can be listed in a wedding album, and these may all be written down in the family Bible; however, these milestones are also recorded in official government documents known as vital records

The Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH) receives many questions regarding vital records each week. Vital records encompass birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses/certificates, and divorce records. In some states, vital records also include civil union certifications and wills. For Alabama specifically, the Code of Alabama 1975 § 22-9A-1 defines vital records as “certificates of birth, death, marriage, divorce, and related data.”  In addition to vital records, counties and the federal government may have records that document the same milestones in a different manner.

Vital records are particularly valuable for genealogical research. Today’s post will provide information about the four categories of vital records defined in the Code of Alabama 1975, including where to locate an original and obtain copies, restrictions on access, and what other records may document a particular life event. If you are searching for vital records from a state other than Alabama, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information on obtaining vital records for all 50 states and five territories of the United States. Visit their page here: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/w2w/index.htm

Birth Certificates

Birth Register from Conecuh County, Alabama, 1890.

History of Recording Births in Alabama
Alabama did not require the registration of births until 1881. That year, the Legislature enacted a vital records law requiring births to be registered in county health offices (Act 1881-89). While the new law required that births be registered, record-keeping practices were inconsistent. In addition, not all counties complied, resulting in gaps in some county registers.

Birth registers pre-date and may exist as a companion to birth certificates and contain sparse and varied information. Many birth registers from the late 19th century do not include the child’s name and list only sex, race, date, and birth location. Some registers may include the name of the parents and/or the physician or midwife attending the delivery. Some counties kept separate registers for African American and white births. 

In 1908, the Alabama Department of Public Health became the centralized filing location for all Alabama births, marking the beginning of birth certificates. Alabama achieved full compliance with statewide registration in 1927. 

Do I have the right to view a Birth Certificate or Birth Registers?
The Code of Alabama 1975 § 22-9A-21 details the laws governing the disclosure of vital records, including how data from these vital records may be disclosed for statistical or legitimate research purposes by federal, state, county, or municipal governments. 

In Alabama, birth certificates are closed to public inspection for 125 years after the date of birth. Before the 125 years have passed, the State Registrar of Vital Records can only allow inspection of, disclose information from, and issue a copy of a birth certificate to the “registrant” (the individual named on the birth certificate) and the following individuals:

  • A member of the registrant’s immediate family (Spouse, Parent, Sibling, or Child)
  • The registrant’s legal guardian
  • A legal representative of the registrant, family, or guardian – this includes attorneys and physicians

Birth registers do not require the same 125-year restriction as birth certificates and are therefore a useful resource that is available to the genealogist.

Where can I locate an Alabama Birth Certificate? What about Birth Registers?
The Alabama Department of Archives and History does NOT hold birth certificates in their collections.  

The Alabama Department of Public Health at the Center for Health Statistics maintains all vital records and will be the right place to start if you are searching for a birth certificate, available after 1908, or, for some Alabama counties, 1927 and later. For this process, you may request a birth certificate through the Alabama Department of Public Health either in person or by mail. To order a certificate online, you may use the service provider VitalCheck with a major credit or debit card, but additional fees apply. In all cases, you are asked to provide as much information as possible.

  • Full name of the person at birth
  • Date of birth
  • Sex
  • County or city of birth
  • Hospital of birth or state “home” if not in a hospital
  • Full name of both parents before first marriage
  • Your name
  • Your relationship to the person whose certificate you are requesting
  • Your address and phone number

If 125 years have not passed since the individual’s birth, you may only request a birth certificate in Alabama if you are the person named on the certificate or the parent, son or daughter, sibling, or legal representative of the authorized person.

If the individual you are looking for was born after 1881 and before 1908 or lived in a county that did not fully comply with state registration until 1927, you will need to look for birth registers instead of a certificate. These records will still be available through the county. A directory of contact information for county probate offices is available on the Alabama Department of Revenue’s website, although some records are missing or have been destroyed in courthouse fires from the period between 1881 and 1908. The ADAH has a selection of county records on microfilm, including some county birth registers, but does NOT have birth certificates. You can use the online database of microfilm records to identify if the ADAH has the specific county you need.

What if I am adopted?
New birth certificates are issued for persons born in Alabama after an adoption, while the original birth certificates are sealed. Alabama vital records law allows those adopted and born in Alabama to obtain non-certified copies of original birth information once they reach the age of 19. For these records, adoptees may visit the Alabama Department of Public Health section regarding adoptees seeking original birth information for more information.

I don’t have the right to view a birth certificate/ the county register doesn’t exist/ I am unable to find the person. What can I do? 
While you may not be able to obtain a copy or view a specific vital record, you may be able to gain some of the genealogical information you are seeking through other sources. Some suggestions of records that may help you locate an individual’s birth are church records and newspapers. Churches usually include a birth date in their baptismal/christening records. Newspapers.com can provide a wealth of information. In the past, newspapers regularly printed birth announcements, and the society or “gossip” columns kept citizens apprised of the comings and goings of others in town. The Alabama Vital Records page on Familysearch.org is a great starting place for identifying records that may contain birth information.

The United States Census Bureau compiles the federal population census every ten years. Although not always completely accurate because the data was reported by whoever answered the door or by a neighbor, the 1850 to 1950 census records indicate the person’s age and state or foreign country of birth, which provide clues to birth year and geographic location. The 1900 census is particularly helpful as it lists the person’s month and year of birth. These records are available through a service such as Ancestry.com, available for free on-site in the ADAH research room and in many public libraries.

The Alabama Department of Public Health provides access to birth certificates. If you are not authorized to obtain a copy of a birth certificate, you may use other resources. If you need assistance in locating birth registers, searching church records, or researching using online resources, the ADAH Reference archivists will assist in your journey. Visit our website or call the reference room at (334) 242-4435 to learn more about research at the archives. 

Marriage Licenses/Certificates

History of Recording Marriages in Alabama
Alabama was once part of the Mississippi Territory. In 1799, a territorial law was passed requiring the registration of all marriages with the County Orphans Court (Orphans Courts were abolished with the establishment of County Probate Courts in 1850) within three months of the ceremony. Information in the county records books may include the age, height, city or county of residence, occupation, and the number of previous marriages of both spouses. 

Beginning in August 1936, the State of Alabama began requiring Counties to submit copies of all marriage registrations to the Alabama Department of Public Health, which files and maintains these records.

On August 29, 2019, Probate Courts ceased issuing traditional marriage licenses and now submit notarized marriage certificates to the Alabama Department of Public Health. The information contained in marriage licenses and marriage certificates will be similar.

Do I have the right to view a Marriage License/Certificate?
Alabama marriage records are not restricted, so any person may obtain copies of a marriage license/certificate if they can provide enough information to locate the record.  

Where can I locate an Alabama Wedding License/Certificate? What about registers?
The Alabama Department of Public Health at the Center for Health Statistics maintains all vital records. It will be the right place to start if you are searching for a marriage license issued during or after August 1936, or for the more current marriage certificates. To locate a marriage record, you must provide the following information:

  • Full names before first marriage of both spouses
  • Date of marriage
  • County where marriage license was issued
  • Your name
  • Your address and phone number

County Probate Courts still maintain marriage records dating from the first year of the county’s creation through July 1936. A directory of contact information for county probate offices is available on the Alabama Department of Revenue’s website. The ADAH has a selection of county records on microfilm, including probate office marriage registers and indices. You can use the online database of microfilm records to identify if the ADAH has the specific county you need. Call the reference room at (334) 242-4436 for more information about county records on microfilm. 

What other types of records document a marriage?
The How to Find Alabama Marriage Records page on Familysearch.org is a great starting place for identifying records that may contain marriage documentation. Starting in 1850 and every decade thereafter, the United States federal population census lists all members of a household, and the 1900 and 1910 censuses indicate the number of years of marriage for each married person in the household. The National Archives houses these census schedules. These records are also available through a service such as Ancestry.com, available for free on-site in the ADAH research room and in many public libraries.

Another resource, religious institutions usually record the marriages performed at a particular church or within a parish, so church records are particularly valuable for finding documentation of this life event. Families often submitted detailed wedding announcements for publication in the local newspaper which can be searched on microfilm or Newspapers.com

The ADAH Reference archivists may be able to help you locate other records of value for your search. Visit our website to learn more about research at the archives. 

Divorce Records

Chancery Court Divorce Finalizations from 1843.

History of Recording Divorces in Alabama
Before 1957, several entities could grant a divorce, including the State Legislature, Circuit Court, City Court, and the County Chancery Courts (Chancery Courts were consolidated into Circuit Courts in 1915). In 1957, the Circuit Courts were granted exclusive jurisdiction to decide divorce cases.

Beginning in January 1950, all divorces are documented by the Alabama Department of Public Health.

 Do I have the right to view Divorce Records?
Alabama divorce records are not restricted, so any person may obtain copies of a certificate if they can provide enough information to locate the record. 

Where can I locate Alabama Divorce Records?
The Alabama Department of Public Health at the Center for Health Statistics maintains all vital records. It will be the right place to obtain records of divorces finalized on or after January 1, 1950. To locate a divorce record with the Alabama Department of Public Health, you must know the following information:

  • Full names before first marriage of both spouses
  • Date of divorce
  • County where divorce was granted
  • Your name
  • Your address and phone number

Divorces finalized by the Legislature were recorded in the legislative journals. Legislative journals dating from 1818 to 1901 can be accessed through the ADAH Digital Collections, and those from 1902 are available in the Reference Room. 

The ADAH also has some county records (Probate Judge, Chancery Court, Circuit Court, etc.) on microfilm. Divorce records might be found here. Visit the ADAH’s County Records on Microfilm Database for more information.

What other types of records document a divorce?
The Divorce Records page on FamilySearch is a great starting point for identifying records documenting divorces. If a divorce was particularly noteworthy, newspapers might have covered the court trial.

Contact an ADAH Reference archivist to learn more about other records that might document divorces in Alabama. 

Death Certificates

History of Recording Deaths in Alabama 
Similar to births, Alabama did not require deaths to be registered before the passage of the 1881 vital records law; however, some deaths were recorded in the wills, estate case files, and minutes of county probate courts. These records only exist if the deceased was a property owner who passed away before a legal matter was settled in court. These records may also only supply a small amount of information about an individual’s death, such as the date. 

After 1881, county health offices were charged with registering deaths, but not all deaths were reported. Registers will not contain the same information as modern death certificates. In 1908, the Alabama Department of Public Health began filing death certificates from the counties. 

Do I have the right to view a Death Certificate?     
Death certificates are closed to public inspection for 25 years from the date of death. Before the 25 years, the State Registrar of Vital Records can allow inspection of, disclose information from, and issue a copy of the death certificate to the following individuals:

  • A member of the registrant’s immediate family, including a grandchild when demonstrating entitlement, such as needing a death certificate to file an insurance claim
  • The registrant’s guardian
  • A legal representative of the registrant, family, or guardian – this includes attorneys, physicians, and funeral directors 

Where can I locate Alabama Death Certificates?
What about earlier death records? When researching death records, know that a death is recorded in the county where the individual passed away, not the county where they resided. The Alabama Department of Public Health at the Center for Health Statistics maintains these vital records. It will be the right place to obtain copies of death certificates issued after January 1, 1908. In order to allow the Department of Public Health to locate the record provide as much information as possible.

  • Full legal name of deceased
  • Date of death
  • County (or city) of death
  • Sex
  • Social security number
  • Date of birth or age at death
  • Race
  • Name of spouse
  • Names of parents
  • Your name
  • Your relationship to the person whose certificate you are requesting
  • Your address and phone number  

Alabama death certificates from 1908 through 1974 are available on Familysearch.org, through a Family Search Affiliate Library like the ADAH. 

If searching for probate court records that may mention the death of an individual, the ADAH has a collection of county records available on microfilm

What other types of records document a death?
The Death Records page on Familysearch.org is a great starting point for identifying records documenting deaths. Obituaries in newspapers may provide genealogical information, such as date of death, brief biographical information, and names of family members. Church records may provide information on the date of death, family members, and burial location of an individual.

Community compiled databases like Find a Grave allow you to browse for your ancestors’ burial place and often include photographs of headstones and virtual memorials.

The ADAH Reference archivists can help you identify collections and specific records housed at the ADAH that will help you in your search. To learn more about research at the archives, visit our website or call the reference room at (334) 242-4435.

Federal Records that Document Significant Life Milestones

The legal authority to register births, deaths, marriages, and divorces reside within the U.S. states and territories, so the federal government does not create or maintain individual vital records. However, several federal agencies do create or maintain records that provide information on births, deaths, and marriages.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention produces records using information garnered from the state-issued vital records. Publications like the National Vital Statistics Reports and the U.S. Decennial Life Tables compile data from individual states’ vital records, which may provide insight into trends as it relates to birth, death, marriage, and divorce statistics.  

The United States Census Bureau also creates the federal population census, which has been taken every ten years since 1790. Older censuses only collected the name and birth year of the head of household and the number of free and enslaved people in the household; however, the amount of information collected has grown exponentially since the 18th century. Caution should be used when referencing earlier censuses as it was not uncommon for individuals to fabricate information about themselves, or for census takers to use information from a neighbor if the head of the household was not available. Finding other records to validate the information in censuses is recommended.

For birth, death, or marriage of a U.S. Citizen abroad, visit the U.S. Department of State for information on requesting vital records. The National Archives maintains and can provide access to federal records including military casualty lists, overseas birth and marriage reports from 1910-1949 that American citizens reported to a U.S. Consulate, and death notices and reports through 1974.

If life is a highway, as Joyce Kilmer expressed, we hope this blog post leaves you equipped with a better roadmap to locate crucial milestones. A multitude of resources exist to assist you in traversing your family’s history, whether by requesting vital records through the Alabama Department of Public Health, visiting your local probate office, perusing registers through ADAH microfilm, or accessing online resources, such as FamilySearch or Ancestry. If you break down along the way, the ADAH staff is here to respond to any inquiries you may have and help you navigate research roadblocks.

ADAH Records Management Archivist, Sophie G.H. Law contributed to this blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s