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Vital records are records of life events kept under governmental authority, including birth certificates, marriage licenses, and death certificates. In some jurisdictions, vital records may also include records of civil unions or domestic partnerships.
In the United States, vital records are typically maintained at both the county and state levels. In the United Kingdom and numerous other countries vital records are recorded in the civil registry.
Various European countries are members of an International Commission on Civil Status which provides a mutually recognized convention on the coding of entries appearing in civil status documents, with common codes and translation tables between the language of the member states. They also provide an English unofficial translation.
In the fields of Records Management and Archival Science the term vital record is used to mean "records, regardless of medium, which are essential to the organization in order to continue with its business-crucial functions both during and after a disaster. They need not be permanent, might be active or inactive, originals or copies."
Note that only the life events meaning is restricted to government; the records management meaning in this article applies to both government and non-government organizations.
In low-income countries, such as Brazil, vital statistic systems have shown a 56% underreporting of infant mortality rates. The results of an ethnographic study conducted by researcher Marilyn K. Nations and Mara Lucia Amaral point to a lack of cultural understanding as the main cause of inaccurate data. Firstly, government authorities are often isolated from these experiences of death. Moreover, reporting deaths often jeopardizes the family’s future subsistence as they rely heavily on government benefits received for each child. Low income families also cannot afford to pay the fees associated with reporting deaths and other indirect costs such as loss of time having to go to the city to register the death. As a result, the data recorded in vital records are often skewed. To overcome this problem, methods of gathering mortality data need to have an awareness of cultural meanings and knowledge of local beliefs.
The governmental authority is tasked with the safekeeping of the vital records, effectively providing the government with another source of income through fees. The original copy of the vital record is always kept by the government authority. In the United States vital records are public and in most cases can be viewed by anyone in person at the governmental authority. Copies can also be requested for a fee. There are two types of copies: certified and uncertified. Certified copies are official copies that can be used as identification whereas uncertified copies do not contain the governmental authority's seal and often are marked that they should not be used for identification. There may be additional restrictions in place on who can actually request a certified copy, such as immediate family or someone with written authorization. Certified copies are usually much more expensive than uncertified copies. Some states have started making vital records available online for free. Vital records that are online typically are 90 or more years old and assume the person listed in the record is no longer alive.