That raised embossed seal

Reader Michael Stills was a bit perplexed.

He knew, as a genealogist, that many of the records he had copies of were embossed with a raised official seal.

That didn’t explain, of course, why his marriage license was stamped with an Official Birth Record seal.

Utah sealAnd it particularly didn’t explain or provide an answer to the key question that he had: what exactly is the significance and value of “Certified” vital documents?

His understanding, he said, was “not … that the information contained in the document is correct, only that is a copy of the original document.”

Could that be correct?

Easy answer: Yep.

That’s exactly it.

And that’s all it is.

Pure and simple, a certified copy is “a copy of a document, signed and certified as a true copy by the officer to whose custody the original is intrusted.”1

Stated just a little differently, it’s “a copy of a document issued by a court or government agency guaranteed to be a true and exact copy of the original.”2

Or: “A certified copy is a copy (often a photocopy) of a primary document that has on it an endorsement or certificate that it is a true copy of the primary document.”3

Notice the one thing you don’t see in any of these explanations or definitions of a certified document: in no case are the contents of the document being certified as true or accurate.

We can all point to examples, as genealogists, of certified records with information that is absolutely, positively, provably wrong.

A case in point would be a death certificate in The Legal Genealogist‘s possession. It’s certified by the then-Director of Vital Records of the State of Utah. And the middle name, city of birth, maiden name of mother and first name of father of the deceased are all incontrovertibly and demonstrably in error.4 I know they’re wrong: it’s my father’s death certificate, and I have his original birth certificate, baptismal certificate, parents’ marriage certificate and more, with the correct information.5

So the fact that a document is certified doesn’t mean what it says it correct.

It doesn’t even mean the original was the real thing: it’s entirely possible that what was originally filed was a total fraud. For example, more than one land deed over the years has been recorded when the signatures on it had been forged and the actual owners had no idea someone else was claiming to have bought the land.

Now… as for Michael’s marriage certificate… no, the fact that the “this is an official copy” stamp says it’s a birth record rather than a marriage record doesn’t mean he isn’t married. He is (or isn’t) married based on what actually happened when he was married, not based on what’s in that certified copy of his record. Because the certification of the copy doesn’t affect the legality of the underlying event at all. If one of the two people who got married was already legally married to someone else, you can have a properly certified copy of a record of a marriage that was never legal, for example.

So with all these limits, why do we have certified copies at all? Because it’s “a convenient way of providing a copy of documents. … It avoids the owner of important documents (especially identity documents) giving up possession of those documents which might mean a risk of their loss or damage.”6

Bottom line then: “A certified record is a copy of an original record verified to be a genuine copy and may be used as the original. … A certified copy does not ensure the original is genuine, only that it is a true copy of the primary document.”7


SOURCES

  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 187, “certified copy.”
  2. Wex, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School (http://www.law.cornell.edu/wex : accessed 8 Jan 2018), “certified copy.”
  3. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Certified copy,” rev. 3 Dec 2017.
  4. Utah Department of Health, Death Certificate 143-94-000152, Hugo H. Geissler (1994); Office of Vital Records and Statistics, Salt Lake City.
  5. And no, Utah won’t fix the death certificate. The rule there requires that the application to amend the certificate be filed by the informant. That wasn’t me.
  6. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Certified copy,” rev. 3 Dec 2017.
  7. Rebekkah Shaw, “Notarized vs. Certified Records,” Records Keepers of the Utah State Archives blog, posted 18 May 2016 (https://recordskeepers.blog/ : accessed 8 Jan 2017).
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