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Overheard in GenForum: Writing for Records Etiquette
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

January 18, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: Can someone please let me know the proper way to write a record request? Can I ask for several records with a single letter? What about payment, do I pay for each record I request or for each record I receive? What sort of information can I expect for a birth record, social security applications, land deeds, etc.? Also, if I am writing for records in a foreign country, Denmark for example, can I write in English and expect someone to understand? -- Kristen

A: While more and more research can be accomplished on the Internet, there are still times when it becomes necessary for us to write to a courthouse, library, or other repository to request copies of records pertinent to our research. This is often an area in which genealogists find themselves lacking.

Your question shows that you are thinking ahead. You realize there must be some acceptable manner in which to request records. Asking ahead of time will save you from the frustration that others have experienced. That frustration has manifest itself in returned requests refusing to do the research and unanswered requests.

Keep your requests from going unanswered.

One Record or More?

When writing for copies of vital records, land records, or probate records, to name just a few, I subscribe to the one request per letter method. In the years I have been writing for records I have never had such a request go unanswered. Each letter is direct, supplying the reader with the necessary information to locate the requested document. A sample letter was included in this week's Rhonda's Tips in the question"Writing for Records."

It is especially important to make sure that you do not ask for different types of records in a given correspondence. For instance, do not request a copy of a birth certificate and a copy of a probate record in the same letter. These records are generally maintained by different departments in the courthouse. You want the reader of your letter to help you, so it is up to you to make the request as simple as possible.

Whenever possible take advantage of online or microfilmed indexes to the records in question. For instance, don't just write for a death certificate with an approximate date of death and an approximate place of death if there is an online death index you could search first. The more information you supply about the requested record, the better your chances are of receiving it.

If you are an owner of the Family Tree Maker program, Version 8 offers some additional guidance in the writing of letters to request such documents.

Payment Please

It is customary to include payment at the time of the request. Such payments may be estimated, although I encourage you to seek out possible costs. A search at VitalChek, is a good place to start when learning about the costs of vital records for a given county or state. Thomas Kemp's International Vital Records Handbook, published by Genealogical Publishing Company, Inc., is another useful resource for this information.

Some records, such as deeds and probate records, may be multiple pages in length. I often call the courthouse in question and see if I can determine the cost per page for such documents. I then estimate how many pages I think it will be and send them a check. Usually my checks are anywhere from $10 to $20. I always include a line in my letter asking them to bill me for additional costs, or to at least contact me should I need to send them more money.

Different Records

You have mentioned a number of different record types in your message. While some of these may be housed at the same repository, they are generally handled by different departments. And, while the different departments do talk to each other, you are more apt to get your response if you limit your requests as was mentioned above.

Vital records, such as births, deaths, and marriages, generally are a single page. The information included will vary from county to county, state to state, and country to country. You will need to read up on the records as they pertain to your given research area to determine just what you should expect. Generally for a birth certificate, you should get the name of the child, the names of the parents, possibly the maiden name of the mother, the date of birth, the place of birth, possibly the age of the parents at the time of the birth, and their place of birth.

Land records, or deeds, may be on one or more pages. The older deeds, found in hand written volumes are often more than a single page. Many of these records may have been microfilmed. A search of the Family History Library Catalog may be in order to determine what has been microfilmed. A deed though will contain information pertinent to the transfer of the property. It will include the name of the seller (grantor), the name of the buyer (grantee), the date of the transaction, the amount of money that changed hands, a legal description of the land, signatures of witnesses and the grantor and possibly the name and signature of the wife if they are in a dower state.

Finally, the information found when requesting a record from the Social Security Administration was discussed in last week's Overhead on GenForum in "SSDI SS-5 Applications." You will want to be sure to investigate that further.

In Conclusion

In addition to the guidance mentioned above, it may be possible to order the necessary records online. This is especially true of vital records, even for foreign countries. You may be able to find out more by visiting sites devoted to the countries in question. You can find valuable links by visiting Cyndi's List and selecting the country of interest.

I encourage you to study the areas in which you find your ancestors. Learn about the records that are available. See what restrictions, if any, may have been placed on the records. Show the clerks at the repositories that you have done your research before you write requesting records from them.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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