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Ancestral paper trails don't come cheap

Genealogy isn't just your grandmother's hobby any more, particularly if Granny lives on a fixed income. The price of completing a pedigree chart has skyrocketed in recent years as computer technology and the Internet lure more people into the name game. Only sex-oriented Web sites get more hits than genealogical ones.

Meanwhile, commercial enterprises have propelled genealogy into a billion-dollar industry, selling everything from mammoth databases squeezed onto compact disks to online subscriptions to computer software for creating family trees. Suddenly it's cool to trace your roots.

Unfortunately, some government agencies also are cashing in on the trend. The Social Security Administration now charges $27 for the same tiny document that cost a mere $7 two years ago. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) hiked its price for military pension records from $10 to $37 each. Officials justify the fee increases by contending that their offices have become swamped with requests in recent years.

Except for one Pennsylvania county that manages to generate enough revenue from copying documents to pay a full-time genealogy researcher, most of these entities probably would be hard-pressed to show a proportionate expansion of staff. The upshot is that most "rooters" must now shell out far more money to prove their links to the past.

Last week's column featured an overview of places from which to obtain items like federal and state documents and the related fees, which range from $5 for birth and death certificates from West Virginia to $37 for a Civil War pension file from NARA.

Today's focus is on local records such as wills, marriage license applications and obituaries. As with state records, fees vary by county and municipality.

The registrar of wills in Westmoreland County, Pa., for example, gets $4 per surname to search for marriage license applications and charges $1.50 to get a copy. Neighboring Fayette County wants a $5 search fee for marriage license applications, wills and probate records. Copies cost 50 cents a page. You pay the search fee even if the record can't be located.

Since fees aren't consistent, researchers requesting documents by mail must either contact the repository in advance to find out how much they will be charged or send a check with a notation not to exceed a specified amount. Self-addressed, stamped envelopes are optional.

Of course, the ideal way to conduct your research is in person. Walk-ins can save a bundle. One Ohio researcher recently paid a mere 25 cents for a copy of a marriage license application in Crawford County and latched onto a death certificate for free. A death certificate in Knox County set her back a buck, and she spent $2 each for birth and death records at the Richland County Health Department. The highest duplicating fee I've encountered was in New Jersey's Burlington County courthouse, where I anted up $3 every time I hit the print button on the microfilm machine.

(To prevent fraud, state and county vital statistics offices and the Social Security Administration are among the repositories that do not permit individuals access to their files. Check before making a trip!)

Need an obit or a news story? Walk-ins pay from 10 to 50 cents a page to make copies from microfilm or books at most public libraries. It's a quarter at the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library.

Most public libraries accept mail requests for obituaries if you know the death date. A few weeks ago, I paid 25 cents apiece for two obits I got from the Greensburg Library in Westmoreland County, Pa. The Connellsville and Uniontown libraries, both located in the same county, charge $1 and $2 respectively. Self-addressed, stamped envelopes are expected and appreciated.

Research and duplicating fees at state archives vary wildly. Some do a limited amount of research for free. Others want $10 per request in advance. Most have a Web site. Check out procedures, prices and availability of documents before making your request.

Donna Murray Allen welcomes your questions about genealogy and will respond to those of general interest in future columns. Sorry, she can't take phone calls, but you can write to her c/o Floridian, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or e-mail her at You can read her column online at Type Donna Murray Allen in the search box.