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Vital Signs
Has your search for online birth, death and marriage records flatlined? Re-energize your efforts with this essential five-step guide.
Family historians live and die by vital records. The key family tree details in birth, marriage, divorce and death certificates breathe new life into your research. But to get them from government agencies, you have to deal with bureaucratic red tape — which can kill your genealogical momentum. And though vital records have joined the parade of family tree documents marching onto the Web, they're not always easy to find. Just as fees and access policies vary from state to state, so does online availability.

Consider the contrast between New York and Minnesota: The Empire State charges genealogists $22 for a copy of a death record (more if your search request exceeds a three-year span). Alas, that higher-than-average fee doesn't buy you blue-ribbon service: You can expect to wait nine to 10 months before your photocopy finally arrives in the mail. Worse, New York's microfiche indexes are available only at four in-state locations. Minnesota, on the other hand, has adopted a convenient high-tech access approach: From the Minnesota Historical Society's (MHS) Web site, you can search a 1906 to 1996 death index, then request an $8 photocopy of the record, which will arrive within 15 to 20 business days. MHS is tackling an online birth index, complete with digitized copies of the original records. No more waiting by your mailbox.

With online vital stats so scattered, how do you know whether the keepers of your clan's records have embraced 21st-century technology? And what if your ancestors' states haven't emerged from the horse-and-buggy days — can you find the data anywhere else on the Web? Follow these five steps to find out.

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