Amending Dates on Official Records

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What a Difference a Day Makes

August 2005


My father always thought he was born on February 2. He came to the US when he was 8 years old. Soon after, his mother died, and his father never remarried. For several years, he and his brothers frequently moved as his father followed the scent of jobs in the small towns of south-western Pennsylvania.

So they likely lost, or discarded, all documents relating to the 'old country.' And it's possible that an all-guy family didn't pay a lot of attention to things like birthdays. Later, at age 18 or 21, when he started putting his birth date on official documents, he used February 2. Even when he was in his forties applying for US citizenship he used the same date.

But when he retired and applied for Social Security benefits, they needed a new copy of his birth certificate from Italy. When it arrived everybody was mildly surprised that it showed his actual birth date as February 1. When I asked him if he was going to correct all those documents, he said "No, it doesn't matter any more." Not until 30 years later, that is: when I began collecting documents for dual citizenship, it mattered a whole lot!

The Problem

All consulates are different in how they interpret the rules, and in how helpful they are in answering questions and resolving problems. And, what they say in one conversation may not be what they say in a later conversation. But it appears that most consulates are willing to ignore small differences between documents, e.g., changes in the spelling of middle names.

However, differences in dates are much more troublesome.

All of my father's US docs (except possibly his Social Security benefit application) have February 2 as his birth date, while his Italian birth certificate shows February 1. When I talked with a few Italian consulates, they said the issue was being sure that these two birthdates did not represent two different people with the same name. And Italian naming conventions assure that many people will have the same name!

So, I began what I thought would be a simple process to correct the birth date on his death certificate, his marriage certificate, and his naturalization certificate.

The Solutions

The details and generalities described here are similar to many other states, but apply specifically to Pennsylvania (except for the naturalization certificate, which is a federal document).

The most expedient path to correcting an individual's documents is to be sure that individual is still alive when you realize you need to have the documents corrected. Usually all they need to do is fill out the appropriate forms and all will be set aright in due time. If the individual in the document is deceased, the situation becomes a little more complicated, and lawyers may need to be involved, which is another way of saying expensive.

The Easy One

To correct the birth date on my father's death certificate, a short form needed to be filled out, signed by the executor of my father's estate, and sent to the PA Dept. of Health, Vital Records. The executor happened to be my brother, who was more than willing to do so.

If the executor of the estate is no longer living, the lawyer for the settlement of the estate must do the paperwork. Nobody mentioned what would have to be done if both the executor and the lawyer were deceased. (Perhaps an 'order of court' would be needed; see below.)

Some changes to some documents can be corrected with an affidavit.

The Tough One

Correcting my father's birth date on his marriage certificate was more difficult, and more costly. For some reason, they (PA Dept. of Health, Vital Records) needed an 'order of court' (also called a 'court order') for this change.

To do this, a lawyer prepares a pleading or petition, schedules an appearance in court, and presents the petition before the judge. If the judge agrees to the request of the petition, he signs the order to have the date changed. In general, a court order can be signed by any judge in any court ?it doesn't even have to be in the state where the documents came from. But things do run a little smoother if you can work with a lawyer that happens to know the clerk of the court where the petition will be presented.

I was surprised to find that the likelihood of the judge signing the order would have been almost guaranteed if some of my father's documents had the wrong birth date and some had the correct date. Then the lawyer could say to the judge "Look here, here, and here ?these official documents have the correct date. We need to change those documents which have the wrong date."

I told the lawyer that wasn't true in my case. He hmmmm'ed and sighed. I wasn't getting any warm fuzzies about this.

So his next idea was to tell the judge that the whole family had known all along that his birthday was actually February 1, and that's when we always celebrated his birthday, in spite of what all the documents say. That would be acceptable to the judge.

But I mentioned to him that the whole family had always believed February 2 was his birthday. The only comment from the lawyer: "I wish you hadn't said that."

The next thing I learned from the lawyer was about the concept of 'standing.' On a scale of 1 to 100 (with 100 being the most or best), I had a standing of only about 5. On the other hand, my brother, who had absolutely no interest in ever doing this wacky citizenship thing, had a standing of about 95! Apparently, simply because he was executor of the estate, he had way more standing to appear before the court and request a change to my father's document than I did. Here is an article that talks about some of the ideas behind the concept of standing:

If you've ever needed to go to court for any reason, you know that activities are not tightly scheduled. The lawyer is given a day to show up, and he sits and waits until his case is called. He may sit there all day. There is even the chance that he will be rescheduled for the next day. Note that all this waiting is billable time for the lawyer.

As it turns out, my brother did not actually have to go before the court. The lawyer did request that I be available via phone in case the judge had any questions. So, my borther signed the papers, the lawyer presented them to the judge, and the judge signed the order. Finito!

The Impossible One

The final document to correct was my father's naturalization certificate. I spoke several times with the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, DOJ/INS/BCIS. Only the owner of the naturalization records can change them. After the owner dies, they cannot be changed.

Until recently, they apparently allowed 'amendments' to naturalization certificates. Now they have a new director, and he is "going by the book," which means that they will only recognize or certify those records that are theirs. They were very friendly and tried to be helpful. But in the end, their only suggestion was to write a letter to the director, and if he got enough letters he might change their policy. This sounded like something that wouldn't happen in my lifetime.

Further discussion with the consulates determined that including the application for citizenship along with the naturalization certificate would resolve the question because the application includes information about the applicant's mother and father. I don't know yet whether or not this will actually work.

The Bottom Line

Death certificate: The total cost to change the date was the postage needed to get the form from me to my brother, and from my brother to PA Vital Statistics. The total time was only two or three weeks.

Marriage certificate: In my case, this process took four months and cost just under $3000.


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