Note: this FAQ relates to original birth certificates of adopted people born in the United States. FAQs on additional issues, including those related to intercountry adoptees, are forthcoming.
An original birth certificate, frequently shortened to “OBC,” is a government-issued vital record that contains the basic facts of a registrant’s birth, including the date of birth, the city or county of birth, and the name of any acknowledged birthparents (the “registrant” is the person whose birth is being “registered.”) Nearly every person born in the United States in the last 100+ years has an original birth certificate, typically on file today with a state or local vital records office. Adopted people, however, usually have two birth certificates: 1) the original; and 2) an amended record that lists the adoptive person’s adoptive parents as the birthparents.
Once a court finalizes an adoption, the court forwards the order for adoption (and often another document known as a certificate of adoption) to the vital records department in the state of the adopted person’s birth. The vital records department in that state uses these documents to locate the original birth record of the adopted person. Once located, the department creates an “amended” or “supplementary” birth record using the order of adoption.
The amended record becomes a new vital record and it usually changes the name of the adopted person. It also replaces the names of the originally listed birthparents with the names of the new adoptive parents. With these changes, the amended birth certificate creates the impression that the adopted person was “as if” born to his or her adoptive parents. In some states, other facts of the adopted person’s birth may be changed or deleted, such as the name of the hospital, the time of birth, or the actual location of birth.
The original birth certificate is typically sealed and made unavailable to the public and, in many states, unavailable to the adopted person, even as an adult. After the state seals the original record, the only birth certificate available to the adopted person is the amended record that lists the adoptive parents as birthparents.
Today, it means that the original birth certificate is a vital record that cannot be released without a court order or other legal provision that allows its release. Vital records offices actually used to apply sealing wax to seal an envelope containing the original record. That wax seal could only be “broken” if the adopted person, as an adult, requested a copy of the original birth certificate or if a court ordered the seal to be broken.
Today, breaking the seal means roughly the same thing, though wax seals are no longer used to protect the record. Rather, digital files or archived copies may be accessed once the “seal” is allowed to be broken. States today vary considerably on how an adopted person or others (such as the adopted person’s descendants or siblings) may request and obtain a copy of the adopted person’s own sealed original birth record.
No. Many states do not require that a new amended birth certificate be issued to replace the original, especially if the adopted parents, the adopted person, or the court requests that no new certificate be issued. In such a case the original remains the adopted person’s only birth certificate.
Nothing happened to it. A state will create a new amended post-adoption birth certificate only after an adoption. If no adoption occurred, there is no legal basis to amend the certificate on the basis of a non-existent adoption. This is often the case of children placed in foster care who are never adopted.
In most states, if an adoption legally fails, is annulled, or is vacated, the amended birth certificate is set aside and the original birth certificate is restored.
These categories relate to whether adult adopted people have an unrestricted right to request and obtain their own original birth certificates, or whether it takes a court order or some other discriminatory process to obtain the original records. I use the following general definitions (with the number of states in that category indicated in parentheses).
Unrestricted (9). No discriminatory restrictions are required to obtain an original birth certificate other than reasonable age requirements and a normal fee paid to the vital records department for a copy of the vital record.
Compromised (22). A state may provide a copy of the original birth certificate without requiring a court order, but only if certain discriminatory conditions are first met. States, for example, may require specific dates of adoption, the consent of birthparents, the redaction of information on the OBC, or the use of a search registry or confidential intermediary for obtaining an OBC. Compromised may also include states where a required fee greatly exceeds the fee paid to obtain a government vital record, such as the case of Tennessee and Arkansas.
Restricted (20). The state requires a court order for an adult adopted person to obtain a copy of the original birth certificate.
A list of the unrestricted, compromised, and restricted states (and the District of Columbia) is here, along with a definition of the various discriminatory restrictions in many states. You can also consult this map.
In almost every case your original birth certificate remains in the state of birth. It is extremely rare, though it has occurred in some circumstances, that a person is born in one state and a birth certificate has been issued in another. I’ve seen two instances of that in the thousands of records I’ve reviewed over the years.
This is a complicated question. First, if you were born in a state that has an unrestricted right for an adopted person to request and obtain his or her own original birth certificate then you simply request your original birth certificate from that state’s vital records department. Nine states currently recognize such an unrestricted right: Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire New York, Oregon, and Rhode Island.
If you were born in a state that requires a court order to release the original birth certificate, you may have an extremely complicated process ahead of you. Your birth state will often require a court order from the state of your adoption to release the OBC, yet the court in the state of adoption will not issue such an order, believing it has no jurisdiction to order another state to issue a vital record. There are no quick and easy solutions to this problem.
If you were born in a state that has compromised the rights of adult adopted people to request their own original birth certificates, it will depend on how that right has been limited and whether people “born in but adopted out” have the same rights to request the birth record as everyone else.
Join Adoptees United, a national organization that is working to bring adopted people and their allies together on the issue of equal rights for all adoptees. AU can put you in touch with other advocates in your state or region who are committed to securing equal rights for all adopted people.
Yes, you may use all or part of this FAQ on one condition: you must credit the use as follows and provide a link to this page:
FAQ: Original Birth Certificates, Gregory D. Luce, Adoptee Rights Law Center PLLC, Minneapolis, Minnesota.