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April 20, 2014

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Genealogy:

Birth certificates not created equally

Stefani Evans

Stefani Evans

What is a birth certificate?

According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, a birth certificate is "a copy of an official record of a person's date and place of birth and parentage." As such, whether the certificate is the original piece of paper with original signatures, a photocopy of the original, or a certified transcript of the original, it is a primary source document that provides direct evidence of a person's date and place of birth as well as parentage.

Many people alive today who were born in the United States were issued a birth certificate by their county of birth. Barring record loss by the courthouse, individuals may obtain copies of their own certificates from the counties of their birth. Nevada, like many other states, does not consider birth records public.

Nevada Revised Statutes (NRS) 440.650 dictates that one must have "a direct and tangible interest in the matter recorded" to receive a certified copy of a Nevada birth record. In other words, most genealogists will not be able to obtain photocopies of Nevada birth certificates. However, NRS 440.670 provides that the state registrar "shall supply to any applicant a certificate reciting the birth date, sex, race and birthplace" of any person whose birth is registered in Nevada (see Nevada Revised Statutes). While the Nevada state registrar's abstracted certificate does not provide names of parents (and thus falls short of the Merriam-Webster definition), it is accepted in a court of law, is obtainable by the public and is better than nothing.

Town, county and state registrars, recorders or clerks hold the original records for their jurisdictions; most American states started requiring civil birth registrations by the 1920s. Social Security applicants born before their county or state registered births may have filed a delayed birth certificate in their county or state of birth. Adoptions created new birth certificates that superseded the originals. Many birth certificates contained errors or omissions that were later amended although some were never corrected.

To paraphrase George Orwell, not all birth certificates are equal, and my mother's birth certificate is less equal than others. Her certificate states her name, the names of her parents, and the place of her birth. However, her birth certificate is less forthcoming about her date of birth. The clerk wrote that my mother was born T/7, and he (or she) did not indicate a year. Also, the clerk neglected to enter a date of registration.

A careless reader might think the T was another 7, and that my mother was born July 7. My mother was born on the seventh of the month, but she was not born in July. And even the most scrupulous reader could not determine her year of birth from the certificate. My mother's birth certificate provides evidence of her name, her parents and her place of birth. With respect to my mother's birth date her certificate, like Nevada's abstracted certificates, does not meet the Merriam-Webster standards even though it is a photocopy of the original certificate on file in her county of birth.

Perhaps the clerk meant that my mother was born Tuesday, the 7th. According to an online perpetual calendar my mother was indeed born on a Tuesday. Luckily, my mother's baptism record names her parents and clearly states the day, month and year of her birth. The baptism record is another primary source created close to the time of her birth that provides direct evidence of my mother's birth date. My mother's birth certificate illustrates why we cannot rely on one record even when it is "a copy of an official record of a person's date and place of birth and parentage."

Stefani Evans is a board-certified genealogist and a volunteer at the Regional Family History Center. She can be reached c/o the Home News, 2360 Corporate Circle, Third Floor, Henderson, NV 89074, or [email protected].

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