Oklahoma Vital Records to join 21st century

I’m a genealogist. Vital records are a primary source for research. So when I tried to obtain a death certificate for my great-grandmother, Margrett Cantrell, and was told that death certificates were no longer public record in Oklahoma, I was quite displeased. It turned out that in 2011 the Health Department had requested and received a law change from the state Legislature that was supposed to ‘clean up’ some language in the statute about vital records. Instead, the new law was then interpreted, without following the correct process, to make it so that death certificates would no longer be public record.

Having obtained numerous death certificates over the years and being much chagrined at these documents being made secrets of the state, I turned to my state legislators for assistance. State Senator David Holt introduced a bill to make death certificates public after 25 years and birth certificates after 125 years, with Representative Elise Hall sponsoring it in the state House. However, the Health Department was unwilling to go along and had the date for death certificates to become public moved back to 75 years. This is what was passed into law. Sen. Holt counseled the wisdom of taking what could be had, but I was not consoled. 75 years is a very long time when I can get records from neighboring Texas online at no charge that are as recent as 1986 and many other states have indexes or full records available to quite recent times. Most galling was the record I had been unable to get was from 1940 and I still couldn’t get it. I’m not sure what fraud the Health Department thought I would or could commit with a death certificate from before World War II, if it even existed.

At the end of 2015 I was finally able to get Margrett Cantrell’s death certificate and was pleased to find she actually had one(these documents were often not recorded at that time and even as late as the Sixties they were not filed for everyone). Unfortunately, it did not include the piece of information I was most hoping to find, the full name of her father. It was too late to request a bill for the 2016 session of the Legislature but I made a mental note to see if my elected representatives were game to try to lower that 75 year waiting period. Instead, a text message from Sen. Holt to me advised that I should take a look HB 2703.

It turns out that the Health Dept. has been thinking about their rules for death certificates and looking at what other states have been doing. Since Sen. Holt and Rep. Hall had been behind the earlier bill that I requested to set a time period when the records become public, they were approached to carry this modernization effort. There was a lot of effort to work out the details, including a conference committee to resolve differences between the Senate and House versions, and the bill was not passed until the last day of the session. But pass it did, and signed by the Governor it was.

On November 1st death certificates will become public record after 50 years, rather than 75. But beyond that, and I’ll quote the just-passed law, “ The State Department of Health shall, by July 1, 2017, make available an online public index that includes, as is applicable, the name, gender, date of birth, date of death, county of birth, and county of death of all persons in its records. Birth data shall not be added to the index until twenty (20) years after the birth. Death data shall not be added to the index until five (5) years after the death. The index shall be made available online at no cost to users.”

I am grateful to whomever it was in the Vital Records office who took the initiative and to Sen. Holt and Rep. Hall for shepherding it through the legislative process. And I’ll take credit for whatever role I might have played in getting the ball rolling.