How to Search for a Death Certificate for Free: Step-By-Step

Updated

Searching for relatives and ancestors has become incredibly popular thanks to programs like Ancestry and 23 and Me. Whether you’re curious about your ancestors or you’re trying to verify where and when someone passed away, you can use several methods to find a death certificate free of charge.

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Numerous sites give you access to records for a fee but you can keep your death certificate search budget-friendly.

How to Perform Death Certificate Search Online for Free

You might need to do an ancestry search, records validation, tax documentation, title transfers, and human remains transference or other reasons for needing a death certificate. You must get a certified copy for all of these but ancestry search, which you can get from your local vitals office for a fee.

Most official business regarding wills, financial institutions, and land deeds require a certified copy. Some institutions, including credit card companies, may only require a copy to do things such as close accounts. In this case, you can obtain a copy for free and use that.

1. Visit your state’s Office of Vital Records website

The best place you can go when determining how to get a death certificate is your state’s Office of Vital Records. This is the section of local government that keeps track of every vital record, including death, birth, stillbirth, marriage, and divorce. While not the only place to obtain an unofficial death certificate, this is the first place to check. 

Many states are getting more strict in terms of who they will give a certificate to, in addition to whether or not they charge. While some states may not charge you for an unofficial copy for genealogical purposes, other states will charge a fee to look up the information you need.

This is understandable, considering they still have to go to the work of searching through records for the certificate whether you want a certified copy or not. 

2. Apply for a non-certified copy, if applicable

If your state’s office of vital records provides a no-fee uncertified copy of a death certificate, complete the application process.

You’ll need to include information such as the deceased person’s:

  • Full name at the time of death
  • Date of birth
  • Date of death
  • County or city of death

You’ll also need to provide your:

  • Reason for your request
  • Relationship to the deceased

3. Search state archives

Many states are moving away from offering free non-certified death certificates and instead point interested residents and genealogy seekers to their archives and records. You can search most state archives online and easily access them from the comfort of your own home. These searches are also free. 

State archives often have death certificates that date to the founding of their state and beyond in some cases. This is an excellent place to look for ancestry records and death certificates from generations ago. 

To complete this process, simply look up your state’s archives website. Once here, you can search for numerous vital records including death certificates. To find a death certificate, you’ll need to fill out as much information as possible for the search engine. Include the deceased person’s: 

  • Legal name (add maiden names for females)
  • Birthdate
  • Death date
  • Place of residence (the more specific the better)
  • Place of death
  • Spouse’s name (optional but helpful)

By providing this information, you should be able to pull up the person’s death certificate as long as you’re searching in the correct state. State archives only contain certificates and information for things that occurred in that state. If your great-great-great-grandfather lived in Wyoming his entire life but died in Colorado, you’d need to access the death certificate in Colorado.

4. Search Ancestry.com

Ancestry.com offers a wealth of data and records for people all around the world. It specializes in vital records like death certificates. After all, genealogical records require these certificates to verify family lineage.

While hardcore ancestry searchers will tell you the paid version of Ancestry.com is well worth it, but if you only need to find a death certificate, you can do so using its free version.

Death records in the U.S.

To access ancestry.com’s thousands of vital records for the United States, you’ll need to set up a free guest account. This option doesn’t require you to enter any financial information and is free for life.

Death records around the world

If you want access to worldwide records, you’ll need to sign up for a 14-day free trial. You will need to enter your valid credit card information, but as long as you cancel prior to the 14 days concluding, you won’t get charged.

Accessing all death records

The process for accessing death records is the same once you’ve set up your guest or trial membership.

To search for a person’s death records, you’ll need to provide as many details as possible including:

  • First and middle names
  • Last name
  • Birthdate
  • Death date
  • Marriage date (if applicable)
  • Spouse’s name
  • Children’s names

Once you click “search,” Ancestry.com will automatically search the database for all people matching the information you entered. At this point, you can choose to filter results to show only death certificates.

Click on the listing you want to see. You can click on a preview and can see detailed information including the cause of death, death and birth dates, spouse’s names, and burial place. You can print out a copy for your own records or order a certified copy if you wish.

5. Search obituary websites

If you’re struggling to find a death certificate through the above methods, you might start your search further back and start with obituaries. Obituary websites allow you access to obituaries from all around the nation and the world, with just a few search terms.

If you’re uncertain where a person died but you do know his or her birth and death dates, search for these and see if you can pull up the person you’re looking for. Check for the location of their deceased. With this information, you can then look in state archives or do a more thorough search on ancestry websites. This also works if you have a general idea of where the person died and know the full name, but only have approximate birth or death dates. 

Starting with someone’s obituary might take a few more steps before you obtain a death certificate, but it’s a good place to start if you’re lacking information. Searching obituary websites also works well if you’re trying to find out if someone died

ยป MORE: Instead of ashes, create a beautiful stone. Parting Stone helps you keep your loved ones close.

 

How to Perform Death Certificate Search In-Person or on the Phone for Free

Sometimes your search requires some in-person or over-the-phone sleuthing. With a few tips and tricks, you can still keep your search free of fees.

6. Go to your state’s records office

Depending on your state, it may have a physical records office location. If so, you can visit in person and ask to search through the records yourself. Most states have strict restrictions on searching through death records and will not allow access to records unless the death is a certain amount of years prior to the day you’re performing the search.

If you want a certificate within several years of the filing date, you may need to request a copy through your state’s office of vital records, which requires a fee to do so.

7. Check your state’s archives

If your state has a physical location for archives, you can search for anything within the archives. The public can access archived vital records after they’ve reached the archival date. This means you won’t have to worry about running into red tape. If your relative’s records exist in the archives, you’ll have access to them.

Searching through a state’s physical records often means accessing the free help of the docent who runs the archives. They can help access records on computers or show you how to do so, enabling you to access the archived document faster than if you searched through books and files to find it. Most of these services are free and paid for by state tax revenues.

8. Call your state’s records office

If you want to save yourself a trip to the records office, you may be able to call and gather some information as to whether a trip is necessary.

Most records offices restrict the amount of information they can provide over the phone but they might be able to answer whether the record you’re looking for is located at the records office or the state’s archives.

9. Call your state’s archives office

If the records office turns out less promising than you hoped, phone your state’s archives office, next. When you speak to someone in the archives office, they can look up the person’s information on their computer system and tell you whether any records for someone by that name exist. Depending on the information, you’ll want to take a trip and look at the archives yourself.

By calling the archives, you should be able to determine whether any records exist for a person of the name you’re searching for. It may or may not be the correct person, but if the name is in their database, someone at the archives office will be able to confirm it.

10. Call family members

If you’re searching for a death certificate in order to conduct ancestry research or piece together missing clues from your family history, try calling extended relatives and family members. You might be surprised which of your family members is a closet historian or ancestry sleuth. Your relative just might have some of the information you need or at least point you closer to obtaining it.

Any missing information a relative can provide such as a person’s birth date, death date, location of death, or unknown maiden name will always help make your search for the death certificate go easier.

Finding Answers and Closure

Death certificates are full of useful information when conducting genealogy research and are vital documents when working to close out or distribute a person’s estate. Obtaining a copy of a certificate written long ago may even provide you with answers you’ve been seeking or give you a sense of closure that you didn’t realize you needed. 

If you're looking for more on how to tie up loose ends after a death, read our guides on how to perform a change of address and cleaning out a parent's house after a death.


Sources

  1. “Application for Certified Copy of a Kentucky Death Certificate.” Death Certificate Applications, Office of Vital Statistics of Kentucky, 2020. vitalchek.com/fax-phone/16401_death.pdf?fax=8662837477&pid=47113&providerid=16401.
  2. “Who We Are.” The Office of Vital Statistics, Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, 2020. chfs.ky.gov/agencies/dph/dehp/vsb/Pages/default.aspx.
  3. “What We Have and How to Find It.” Find it in the Archives, Wyoming State Archives, 2020. wyoarchives.wyo.gov/index.php/find-it-in-the-archives/what-we-have-how-to-find-it
  4. “Death Records.” Death, Ancestry, 2020. ancestry.com/cs/death
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