Public Records: What Are They And Where Do You Find Them?

by C.M. Stewart - Date: 2010-10-18 - Word Count: 594 Share This!

Types of Public Records
Public records take many forms ranging from birth and death certificates to military and property records. Essentially, anything that is recorded by a city, county, state, or federal agency could be available to the general public. The Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act are two federal acts that describe the types of records and related information that are available to the public. Because so many agencies are involved in recording events such as births, deaths, marriages, adoptions, lawsuits, criminal convictions, tax deliquencies, property tax assessments, and so on, an equal number of agencies are involved in storing and managing those records. Because of this, finding specific public records involves first identifying whether the record is managed locally or at the county, state, or federal level.

Finding Public Records at the Local Level
Public records at the local level are typically public agency records such as city council meeting minutes, ordinances, ballot applications, and local building permits. Most personal records such as marriage and birth certificates are handled at the county or state level. In addition to city records, don't overlook the possibility of find local records from churches and cemetaries.

Finding Public Records at the County Level
For recent births, deaths, marriages, and other events involving public records, the county clerk's office may be your first stop. These records are issued at the county level though eventually, the records are transferred to the state. If you need to find older birth, death, and marriage records, your next stop is the state. Note that you need to search for records at the county or state where the event took place. For example, if the person whose birth record you need to find was recently born in the city of San Diego, you would need to look for that record San Diego County's Assessor/Recorder/County Clerk's office. If the record is no longer on file at the county clerk's office, your next step would be to contact the California's Department of Public Health Services Office of Vital Records.

Finding Public Records at the State Level
All states have an office that handles public records. This office is typically part of the state's public health department and may be named the "Office of Vital Statistics." Because the names do vary slightly, head to your state's website and enter the phrase "public records" into the search box and you'll likely find the correct division or bureau handling these vital statistics. In order to obtain a copy of birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses, and other public documents, you will need to fill out an application requesting the record. You may need to verify that you are qualified to request that record. For example, if the birth information that you need is not in the public domain, you must be able to prove that you have a legal right to access it. In general, if you're the person named on the birth certificate, the person's legal guardian, or the person's legal representative, you are qualified to request the information. Expect to pay a small fee for copying the document as well as a search fee for locating it.

Finding Public Records at the Federal Level
Federal public records include military records, federal court records, immigration records, and other documents related to federal issues. Like state and county records research, you will need to contact the specific agency involved. For example, did you know that you can run an FBI criminal background check on yourself through the FBI? Another good reference for federal research is where you can lookup federal documents.

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