Legit paid public records searches?
October 17, 2020 5:40 PM   Subscribe

I'm helping my mom gather the docs she needs for retirement and other benefits, which includes marriage certificates and divorce decrees. I can order them online from the applicable county's deeds office or VitalChek, but she doesn't remember the exact date or which county she got married in--and there are at least 12 possible county options. I can't find it in the place I usually find public records details (ancestry.com), and Intelius was a huge waste of time & money. What legit service can I pay to find this info?

Of course all the county offices are closed because pandemic, so I can't call and neither of us could visit in person even if they were open.

A PI feels like overkill, so I hope there's a better option.
posted by rhiannonstone to Law & Government (3 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I should add, if there's a useful option that would require her to make the request herself (instead of it coming from me), she's able to do that as long as I can tell her exactly what to do/who to call/etc.
posted by rhiannonstone at 8:14 PM on October 17

Are you sure the offices are closed? A lot of town and city offices are closed... to the public. But the officials may be working from home, and partially from offices where needed. Everyday government functions really have to continue, and quite a lot of public records requests can be answered directly by email. What State are you searching for records in?

Every state has it's own public records laws, but many of them are similar. There's no reason not to determine the public records access officer for the counties/towns/cities/agencies you consider possibilities, and contact them directly for assistance.

Some states may charge fees. Some may charge fees only if answering the request takes over a certain amount of time.

Put the request in writing, don't just give it by phone, or leave a message. An email is fine if you can find an email contact address.

Most states will have a required period of time for a response - 10 business days for example. The response may just be - we got nuthin. Or "it will cost this much money to research this for you." or "here's your record, good luck."

Divorce Records are more likely to be with the court system where the divorce took place, and not with a Town or a City. A marriage license, on the other hand, probably is with the town or city. A marriage license is also more likely to be something you won't be able to get for free. Usually they will give out a certified copy for a fee. But, they may be able to tell you first whether or not they have the license. It will help a lot if you know the date. Questions about a marriage license might be better directed to the equivalent is of their City/Town Clerk, not the Records Access Officer.
posted by instead of three wishes at 8:52 PM on October 17 [1 favorite]

In many states, you can attain a marriage or divorce record by writing to the central state record-keeping authority (in my state, it's the department of public health) without knowing where the parties were married. If I were you, I would find out the state's central vital records repository agency, check their website for marriage and divorce record information, and then either a) fill out the form where they'll find it for you or (if they don't seem to have that) b) call or e-mail them and say, "My mom needs her marriage/divorce certificates to access retirement benefits, but she can't remember in which county she got married, do you have a suggestion of best strategy for this?" This is a SUPER NORMAL thing to ask (because an elderly parent is suffering dementia, or a parent has died and the child needs a marriage certificate). Generally state agency people are pretty helpful, and this is the kind of problem they love to solve, because it's within their expertise and they can help a real person solve a real problem. It's possible they'll tell you, "Unfortunately you're just going to have to call every single one of those counties," but if they do they'll probably at least provide you the list of phone numbers!

Another option might be talking to your local legal aid; my legal aid office farmed out these types of cases to local attorneys volunteering pro-bono hours. Typically they were lower-income seniors trying to access retirement benefits with, yeah, exactly this problem. I did a couple of these, they're pretty straightforward. Just a lot of busywork.

Third option, especially if you're still in the state your mom was married in, contact your state representative and ask them how to find this information; they will have their staff talk to vital records and find out what you should do. Sometimes they'll just find it for you. (Does not apply if your state rep is a jerk.) State reps looooooooooove helping people navigate state bureaucracy because a) their offices are really good at it and b) they get to help a real person with a real problem and that person is then like "Hey, Rep. Joe Schmoe isn't my political party, but he REALLY helped my mom out," and c) most of them run for office because they honestly want to help neighbors with problems like this, not because they want to bicker about taxes 60 days a year.

Fourth option, have you contacted local and regional library systems? The reference librarian may be able to find marriage announcements or legal notices for divorces in the local papers, and narrow your search.

Fifth option, if your mom was married in a church or other religious organization, you can probably call or e-mail the regional governing body's records office, and they might be able to help you out. They tend to be a lot less busy than government offices and if you told them, "Definitely the Diocese of Orlando, one of these twelve towns," it's highly likely they'd just e-mail the parish offices in those twelve towns and ask them to check their records. (Or have records centralized at the diocese, possibly.) They might not, they might be jerks. But typically people do want to help.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:28 PM on October 17 [9 favorites]

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