An obituary or death notice is a way to share the news of someone’s death with the local community or extended family. While this is an important way to inform others of the family’s loss, there is no legal requirement to have an obituary or death notice.
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However, like most things dealing with death, the answer isn’t always black and white. There are some instances when you should publish a death notice or obituary. In addition, a death certificate is legally required by the state. A death certificate is a type of medical record indicating someone died that’s used by state record offices.
Knowing what to do when someone dies helps you prepare for the inevitable. In this guide, we’ll break down the requirements for obituaries, death notices, and other legal ways to share the news of someone’s death. For more help with post-loss tasks and challenges, check out our post-loss checklist.
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Requirements for an Obituary
An obituary is a personal record of a person’s life. While a death notice is more straightforward, an obituary typically dives into the specific characteristics and accomplishments of a person. The family usually publishes the obituary as a way to say a few things about the death of their loved one. Because these are public, they also are an opportunity to share the news of a death in the community.
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Are there legal requirements for obituaries?
There are no legal requirements tied to obituaries. They’re a way to tell the story of a deceased family member, and they only carry sentimental value. Obituaries are not a legal or financial obligation under any circumstances.
How do you publish an obituary?
If you decide to write an obituary for a loved one, it’s important to know how to get this published properly. There is no “right” way to publish an obituary, but you’ll want to consider your loved one’s wishes. As mentioned before, obituaries are a memorial to the person who died. They’re a record of their memory that lives on for years to come.
Depending on the wishes of the deceased, obituaries are in:
- Local newspapers
- Social media platforms
- Online obituary websites
- Community or organization newsletters
If the deceased had a large extended family or many ties in the community, publishing the obituary somewhere public and accessible is a good idea. Local newspapers and obituary websites are a common way to find out if someone died. Again, there is no financial or legal need to publish an obituary if the deceased did not want one.
Requirements for a Death Notice
A death notice is a way to announce that someone died. These are factual accounts with fewer details about the deceased. They typically only include vital information such as the date of death and information about the funeral. However, unlike obituaries, there is sometimes a legal need to publish them.
Are there legal requirements for death notices?
If assets need to be distributed to beneficiaries or heirs, the estate executor or local government might publish the death notice publically. If the heirs are unknown, this is a way for them to learn of the death and claim the assets that belong to them.
Another reason the estate planning attorney or probate court might publish a death notice as a notice to creditors. If the deceased person left debt, the published death notice allows creditors to file a claim against the estate.
If a death notice is necessary for creditor or beneficiary purposes, pay attention to the following:
- Timing - Many states require the death notice to be soon after the death. It also might run several times over a period of time to ensure it’s seen by the general public.
- Location - Additionally, state laws often require the death notice to be in the person’s county of residence. Some states will even publish it on the radio, TV, or another type of broadcast.
When in doubt, consult with your local probate court or an estate attorney. They’ll have the best information for your specific situation.
Who publishes a death notice?
Unlike an obituary, the death notice is not only published by the family. It can be published by a local probate court, estate attorney, estate executor, or family member.
Anyone who has reason to believe there needs to be an official statement of the deceased person’s death has the option to publish a death notice.
Other Requirements to be Aware of
Though there is no legal requirement to publish an obituary or death certificate (except in the case of unknown beneficiaries or creditors), there are still legal requirements and etiquette to be aware of. Familiarize yourself with these other requirements below so you know what to expect.
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What documents are legally required?
The document you legally need when a loved one dies is a death certificate. Whenever a person dies, this death is registered with the local or state vital records office. This happens within days of the death.
Where do you get a death certificate? If your loved one passes away in a hospital or long-term care facility, they will prepare this for you. Otherwise, the death report is typically filed through the funeral home or cremation organization. To do this, you’ll need to provide information about the deceased like their full name, birth date and place, family information, and cause of death.
The death certificate is necessary for a number of important legal and financial steps:
- Accessing pension benefits
- Claiming life insurance
- Settling the estate
- Getting married (in the case of a widow remarrying)
- Local public health data
To learn how to get a death certificate for your loved one is through your local or state vital records office. You’ll receive a copy of the certificate within a few weeks of the death, which you’ll be able to use for any financial or legal needs after the death.
What needs to be published?
The family does not need to publish anything assuming there are no unknown beneficiaries or creditors. Aside from the death certificate, there are no legal documents required when someone dies. However, it’s common etiquette to publish either a death notice, obituary, or both when a loved one dies.
Again, it’s best to think of the wishes of the individual. If they had many ties in the local community or they led an esteemed life, a death announcement or obituary is a great way to share a final farewell. However, if your loved one was a private person, they might prefer for their death to stay within the family only.
How to prepare your own documents
As you can see, there are a lot of legal steps family members take after the death of a loved one. There are steps to take today to prepare your family for the end of your own life. While nobody wants to think about dying, taking action while you can ease the stress and burden for loved ones.
While the death certificate is only obtained at the time of death, talk to your family about your wishes. This is an important way to start end-of-life planning. Would you like your death announced publicly? What mediums do you wish this announcement to be on? You might choose a classic newspaper publication or even your own social media page. Again, there are no right answers.
Finally, consider writing your own obituary. Not only is this a powerful writing exercise, but it puts you in control of your own legacy. How do you want those you love to remember you? What impact have you made (or will you make) with the time you have?
Even if your family doesn’t use your self-written obituary word-for-word, this is an important resource when the time does come. It’s all about making these decisions for yourself, so your family doesn’t have to guess on your behalf.
Choosing the Right Announcement for Your Needs
A lot of people are surprised to learn that there are no laws surrounding death notices and obituaries. These are an optional way to pay tribute to the deceased in a public way. Otherwise, the family is entitled to their own privacy after losing a loved one.
How do you choose the right announcement of death for you or your loved ones? Consider the person individually. It comes down to how they want to be remembered and their personal impact. As long as there are no matters of the estate to worry about, this is a highly personal choice for the family.
If you're looking for more on obituaries, read our guide on how to submit an obituary to a newspaper.