May 1, 2000
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions.
The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the information presented in your
Your letter of March 15 sent to the Office of the State Comptroller has been
forwarded to the Committee on Open Government. The Committee, a unit of the Department
of State, is authorized to offer advice and opinions concerning the Freedom of Information
In brief, you have sought guidance relating to the ability to gain access to
genealogical records in New York City.
In this regard, although the Freedom of Information Law pertains generally to access
to government records and the fees that may be charged for copies of records, provisions of
the Public Health Law deal specifically with birth and death records and fees for services
rendered relating to searches for and copies of those records; the Domestic Relations Law
includes provisions pertaining to marriage records. In brief, §4173 of the Public Health Law
permits the disclosure of birth records by a registrar only upon issuance of a court order, or to
the subject of the birth record or the parent or other lawful representative of a minor.
Similarly, §4174 of the Public Health Law limits the circumstances under which the
Commissioner of the Department of Health or registrars of vital records may disclose death
records and specifies that those records are not subject to the Freedom of Information Law.
As such, birth and death records are generally confidential and exempt from the disclosure
requirements found in the Freedom of Information Law. Section 19 of the Domestic
Relations Law pertains to marriage records maintained by town and city clerks and provides
that some aspects of those records are available to the public, while others may be withheld
unless there is a showing of a "proper purpose" that would justify disclosure.
The Public Health Law includes provisions that deal directly with genealogical
records. Specifically, subdivision (3) of §4174 refers to searches for and the fees for records
sought for genealogical or research purposes that may be imposed by "any person authorized"
by the State Commissioner of Health, i.e., a registrar designated in a city, town or village.
That provision states that:
"For any search of the files and records conducted for
authorized genealogical or research purposes, the
commissioner or any person authorized by him shall be entitled
to, and the applicant shall pay, a fee of ten dollars for each hour
or fractional part of an hour of time for search, together with a
fee of one dollar for each uncertified copy or abstract of such
records requested by the applicant or for a certification that a
search discloses no record."
Further, the Commissioner of Health has promulgated "Administrative Rules and
Regulations" pertaining to genealogical research indicating that birth records need not be
disclosed unless the subject of the birth record is known to have been deceased prior to 1924;
death records need not be disclosed regarding deaths occurring after 1949. The summary
also includes a restriction regarding the disclosure of marriage records. However, in an
opinion rendered by this office with which the Department of Health has agreed, it was
advised that basic information contained in marriage records, such as the names of the
parties, the dates of a marriage or marriage application, the duration of the marriage and the
municipality of residence of licensees should be made available to any person, unless a
request is made for commercial or fund-raising purposes. More intimate information would
only be disclosed upon a showing of a "proper purpose."
I believe that New York City abides by essentially the same policies, and it is
suggested that you contact the Municipal Archives, which is part of the New York City
Department of Records and Information Services at (212)788-8580 to obtain more precise
information on the subject.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman