Awhile back I traveled to three different Texas courthouses to access older death certificates to complete some specific research. At each courthouse, I encountered clerks who did not know or understand the public record law of accessing these records. Those clerks argued with me even after I showed them the law web links on my phone. In the end, I drove over 200 miles for nothing.
In one of these counties, the county clerk believed it was 75 years to view a death certificate. I noted to her that time frame was a reference for birth certificates meaning those records are not public until 75 years from the date of the person’s birth.
Additionally, another clerk came back and stated I could only look at the death indexes, not the certificates themselves. Duh – death indexes are available online. Plus, she adamantly stated that the death certificates are not open for me to look at. Additionally, she said a $25.00 fee would be applied for each certificate looked up by their office, as well as requiring me to fill out a request form for each certificate.
For the record, Texas has recorded deaths from 1903 to the present and there is still a tug of war over whether these vital records should be open or closed since Texas’ first opened these records. The county clerks are unsure what they can and cannot do and tend to be either careless or overcautious or bend the law for their own personal reasons. I’ve found it’s often the latter.
I cannot imagine any older lady going into a courthouse wanting a copy of her parents’ death certificate and getting the run around like I did at these courthouses. That’s why I share this vital information.
Importance of Access
Why is access important to these documents? These files are important for statistical research and confirming actual cause of death. They are also important for other reasons – it could be based on your own genealogy research, historical research, church research, work research – the list could on.
A majority of the death certificates I was able to download from the websites of FamilySearch, Ancestry, Roots, Fold3, and Archives. It was the death certificates that are not online as of yet from 1979 to 1989 and the early death certificates filed when the county was first started when Texas required that certifications of death be filed starting in 1903. Additionally, even some death certificates between the years of 1903 to 1979 are not in any of the online databases and require verification at the county level to make sure a death certificate was filed and if so how was it was filed in terms of name, date of death, date of birth, and cause of death.
Online service sites like Archives, Family Search, Rootsweb, or Ancestry have excellent capabilities of allowing a researcher to access and download death certificate files. But often the online files are incomplete or one site might have a death certificate while the other doesn’t. Often it’s either the early death or the later certificates that are not online.
Some early county records were only recorded in straight-line ledger files, not as actual death certificates. Some counties once they became established did have basic death certificates recorded in their county, but those certificates are still so old they are not in an online resource.
Accessing the Death Certificates
Here’s what you need to know if you encounter any grief at a Texas Courthouse or Justice Center overseeing these public documents. There is nothing more disheartening or infuriating after driving two or more hours and being denied access to these public records.
- Texas death certificates become public record after 25 years of the anniversary of death. For example, death certificates starting in 1992 and backward are available for public record.
2. There are no restrictions on getting copies of death records.
Note: Yes – you will have to pay for any paper copies. But what’s really cool is that your phone has a camera and can easily take photos of the certificates or ledger books for your records. Make sure you ask permission to take the photographs before you take out your phone.
- Newer records within the 25 years period can only be issued to immediate family members or legal officers who have an interest in the document. (http://recordsproject.com/death/texas.asp).
- When you go to the courthouse get a feel the building and inquire with the first person you meet on who is the County Clerk. Sometimes showing you are a tad helpless in direction can you get wonderful access.
- When you request access, make sure you’re courteous. Often being nice will get you far.
- If you’re granted access make sure you leave the books as they were given to you. Replace the books if you can.
- Take a pencil and pad with you to write down notes. The pencil – not a pen – is just in case you have a tendency to follow along in the book with a pencil instead of your hand or finger. Make sure it’s got a good eraser. But seriously avoid marking in the books.
- If you find your selected records – write down the volume/book number and the page number located on.
- Then photograph the certificate or request to use the copy machine to make a copy. Don’t ask the county clerk staff to make those copies for you.
10. Always say thank you.
These next steps are in case the clerks do not give you access.
- Take out the specific law on photocopied paper to hand over to the clerks. Cite the law by verse, chapter and year.
- If they still refuse you access then your next step is to pick up the business card of the county clerk and walk out. Don’t argue with them because you’ll get nowhere.
- Next, write to the county attorney of that county asking them the best way to approach and deal with the county clerk. It’s here when you first write an informal public request.
- Cite the website in your letter for easier reference for them to review the law.
- If that initial letter gets you nowhere then write a formal Public Information Act (PIA) request to access the records. In the letter put the following:
I/We are requesting access which has been denied from the _____ County Clerk to the public records of the death certificates up to 1992. This is for (state purpose of needing access)
These files are open to the public “Under Title 25 of the Texas Administrative Code §181.1(22)”, as well as
GOVERNMENT CODE TITLE 5. OPEN GOVERNMENT; ETHICS SUBTITLE A. OPEN GOVERNMENT CHAPTER 552. PUBLIC INFORMATION SUBCHAPTER A. GENERAL PROVISIONS
Sec. 552.115. EXCEPTION: CONFIDENTIALITY OF BIRTH AND DEATH RECORDS. (a) A birth or death record maintained by the bureau of vital statistics of the Texas Department of Health or a local registration official is excepted from the requirements of Section 552.021, except that:
(1) a birth record is public information and available to the public on and after the 75th anniversary of the date of birth as shown on the record filed with the bureau of vital statistics or local registration official;
(2) a death record is public information and available to the public on and after the 25th anniversary of the date of death as shown on the record filed with the bureau of vital statistics or local registration official;….
Another Example of Public Information Act request
Your Full Address
Your Phone Number
Month, Date, Year
Agency City, State, Zip
Re: Request for copies of Public Documents and Waiver of Fees
Dear (be as specific as you can with a name):
Pursuant to Section 552.115 of the Government Code of Texas, I respectfully request access to the following:
- Describe document 1.
- Describe document 2.
- Describe document 3.
I respectfully request access to these files. Please contact me if there are any questions.
Thank you for your attention to this request.
I hope this helps and serves as a reference for future researchers’ who need guidance on accessing these records at the county level.