Everything You Need to Know About Death Certificates

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When you lose a loved one, you might find yourself surprised by just how much paperwork is involved when it comes to managing their affairs. One of the most important documents you’ll need is the death certificate. 

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Though it sounds morbid, a death certificate is the only form of legal and state proof that someone died. This is used by the government, banks, lenders, insurance providers, and so on to update files, stop payments, and issue benefits. With so many different reasons for needing death certificates, how do you keep track of it all?

Whether you’re handling a loved one’s affairs after their death or you’re simply curious, there’s a lot to know about death certificates. In this guide, we’ll break everything down from start to finish so it’s easy to understand and take action. 

What is a Death Certificate?

A death certificate is a legal document used by the state and federal government to prove someone has died. It may be among one of the most important legal documents in our modern world, but has only become common practice when the U.S. began maintaining vital records in the early 1900s. 

Over time, death certificates have expanded to include more information, such as how someone died, their ethnicity, and so on. Why is this document necessary? Usually, it’s just used for legal purposes. For example, if you want to close someone’s bank account or access life insurance benefits, you’ll need to provide a death certificate. 

In addition, public health officials use death certificates for research and statistics. This is how they determine the leading causes of death today and in the past. These records are valuable not only for handling someone’s legal affairs, but also for family ancestry, research, and healthcare. 

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What Do Death Certificates Tell You?

As mentioned above, death certificates have grown to have more information over time. Each state is required to comply with the U.S. Standard Death Certificate, a form issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). 

While some states offer their own variations on this form, they all must include the following:

  • Basic information: Age, gender, race, social security number, birthplace, date of birth, marital status, parents’ names, and education level. 
  • Time and location of death: Location of death and where the death occurred (hospital, at home, nursing home, other).
  • Disposition: Method of disposition (burial or cremation), name and address of the funeral home, and the funeral home verification.
  • Cause of death: Probable death, underlying conditions, manner of death (natural, accidental, violent), injuries, and information about the medical certifier.

The most important part of the death certificate is often the cause of death. This is completed by a medical certifier, also known as the person who legally pronounces the deceased as dead. This can be a doctor, medical examiner, or first responder. 

The cause of death is more complicated than many people realize. There are actually two parts to this document: the immediate cause of death and any underlying causes. The immediate cause of death is what led to the death, for example, this could be a heart attack, stroke, or any other medical reason. 

Next, they must also list the potential underlying causes of death. This could be a complex medical history or something that happened only hours before they died, like a car accident. Because it’s not always clear, many medical examiners use words like “presumed” or “probable” when filling out this part of the form. 

Who Completes the Death Certificate?

There’s also a lot of confusion about who fills out the death certificate. This isn’t something that can be completed by a family member or friend, though a loved one often needs to provide information so the right professional can complete the form. 

The first part of the U.S. Standard Certificate of Death is to be completed by a certified funeral director. Sometimes the family can fill out this basic info, but it needs to be verified and signed by a licensed funeral director to be valid.

The next part needs to be completed by a medical certifier. This is the person who pronounces death. They can be a healthcare provider, medical examiner, or tribal law enforcement authority. They have been authorized to legally certify the cause of death. 

How Many Death Certificates Do You Need After Someone Dies?

When you lose a loved one, you’ll use a death certificate to prove their death to insurance companies, banks, utilities, and benefit providers. The exact number of copies you need depends on their specific situation. Still, it’s safe to say you’ll need multiple copies. 

There are two types of death certificates you’ll be asked for: certified copies and uncertified copies. A certified copy is certified by your local court and vital records office. This is what you get when you order copies through the records office, and you often pay per copy. On the other hand, some providers will allow you to make your own copy of this certified version. 

You’ll likely need a certified copy of the death certificate for any of the following:

  • Government benefits: For things like Social Security or Veterans Benefits, you’ll likely need a certified copy for every government agency. 
  • Bank accounts: To close or transfer bank accounts, you usually will also need certified copies though this depends on the specific bank. The same is true for treasury bills, retirement accounts, and bonds. 
  • Property: If you need to transfer ownership for any property, vehicles, and so on, a death certificate is required. 
  • Insurance: To process insurance claims (life, home, auto, etc.), the provider will request a certified copy of the death certificate. 
  • IRS: Lastly, the IRS will require a certified copy of the individual’s final tax returns and for the IRS death notification.

With this in mind, you’ll likely need anywhere from six to 12 certified copies. Luckily, it’s easy to order more when they’re needed. 

How Much Do Death Certificates Cost?

Certified copies of your loved one’s death certificate will cost you a bit of money per copy. Each state charges its own fees, so you’ll want to check with your local virtual records office for the most relevant information. 

In general, most states charge between $5 to $20 for each certified copy. If they’re unable to find the death certificate, in the case that the individual passed a long time ago, they often charge a second “search” fee. Most states have a maximum amount that can be charged for a search, usually $50. 

Who’s Able to Get a Death Certificate for Someone Who Died?

Death certificates are considered public records. This means that anyone of legal age (18) can be issued a certified copy of someone’s death record. The only important thing to note is that these do not include the cause of death. 

The cause of death is private information that requires additional qualifications to access. While the requirements vary by state, most places only issue cause of death certificates to the following individuals with proper proof:

  • Spouse
  • Parent
  • Child, grandchild, or sibling 
  • A will or estate executor
  • Someone who can prove they’re acting on behalf of any of the individuals above

The only exception to this is for death certificates that are over 50 years old. At that point, the cause of death is often issued with the rest of the death certificate without any further qualifications. Again, these laws vary depending on the state.

How Do You Get a Death Certificate?

Since it’s hard to know what to do when someone dies, how do you get a death certificate? The main person to help you through this process immediately after death is the funeral director. They’re typically the party who files the form with the state, and they can assist with receiving the proper number of copies. 

Otherwise, you can always request for certification of a death certificate by submitting a form to your local vital records office. Each state has its own form, and you’ll likely need to prove your relationship to the deceased and pay a small fee. There is no time limit on when you can request certified death certificates. In many places, you can also apply in person. 

How Long Does It Take to Get a Death Certificate?

Whether you’re reporting a death to credit bureaus or closing credit card accounts, you may want to work quickly. It doesn’t take too long to get a certified death certificate from your local records office, but this will depend on the way you order. 

If you request your death certificate by mail, it can take up to two to three weeks. However, processing times vary by state, and you might be able to go in-person to pick it up immediately. Some states offer same-day, in-person processing if you need it right away. 

To learn the most up-to-date processing times, call your vital records office for an update. If you order by mail, there can be delivery delays. 

Death Certificates and Other Records After a Loss

Losing a loved one is never easy, and it’s hard to take those important next steps. This is especially true when it comes to handling a loved one’s final affairs, financial accounts, and benefits. Luckily, filing and ordering the death certificate isn’t a complicated process. 

Consider these last steps as a final act of kindness and love to someone who mattered to you. Taking care of their finances, records, and paperwork is a way to make sure their legacy is remembered for generations to come. 


Source:
  1. “Documenting Death — The Certificate.” PBS Frontline: Post Mortem, PBS, 1 February 2011, www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/post-mortem/things-to-know/death-certificates.html
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