Everything You Need to Know About Death Certificates

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When someone dies, the death must be registered with the local or state vital records office within a matter of days. The vital records office can then issue copies of the death certificate, which you will need to handle the decedent’s affairs or may wish to have for your personal records.

Navigating the process of filing and obtaining copies of the death certificate can be overwhelming, so we have answered common questions below.   

What is a death certificate?

The death certificate is actually two documents. The first is a Death Registration Form (sometimes electronic) that collects demographic and cause of death information about the deceased.  

The second document is called a Certified Death Abstract, which is issued once the Death Registration Form is processed. This is the document most organizations require as proof of the death.

A copy of the Death Registration Form is kept on file in the office of the locality where the death occurred for a period of time, which varies by state.  The agent then forwards the approved Death Registration form to the State Department of Vital Statistics where the signed death registration will be stored as a permanent record.

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Who prepares the death certificate?

Preparing the death registration form involves gathering personal information from family members and obtaining the signature of a doctor (or, in some states, a physician assistant or nurse practitioner under a doctor’s authority), medical examiner, or coroner.

Typically the funeral home, crematory, or alternative person in charge of the deceased person’s remains will compile and file the death registration form. Some states make it relatively easy for families to file the death registration form themselves, but the process can be complex and inaccessible in others, which results in reliance on funeral homes to perform this service for a fee.

As an alternative option in some locales, the family (or an unpaid designee) can work with the City or Town Clerk in the community where the death occurred to complete the paper or electronic death record.

Certified copies of the death abstract (the actual certificate that you will then use for purposes of verifying the death) are prepared in the local or state vital statistics office for distribution to authorized persons.

Steps and responsibilities for death certificate filing1

  1. Complete all items on the death registration form
  2. Obtain the cause-of-death information and certification statement from the attending physician or medical examiner or coroner
  3. Secure the signature of the person pronouncing death (often a registered nurse) on the certificate, and review the certificate for completeness and accuracy
  4. Check the death registration form carefully for any errors.  If the date of death is entered incorrectly, the printed death certificate will show the wrong date of death, which could be a problem in closing out accounts, settling insurance claims, etc.
  5. File the certificate with the proper State or local official within the time specified in the vital statistics laws of the State
  6. Obtain and use all necessary permits and other forms associated with the death registration system

How long does it take?

The filing process must be completed quickly — within three to ten days, depending on state law. After the vital statistic information is obtained and entered electronically, the death registration form is sent to the physician or medical examiner for signature.

Once all components are completed, it is transferred to the vital statistics office where the certified copies are processed. On average this usually takes 10-12 days, but it can be delayed by an investigation or autopsy.

What information is contained in the death certificate?

A death certificate contains important information about the person who has died. Details vary from state to state, but often include:

  • full name
  • address
  • birth date and birthplace
  • father’s name and birthplace
  • mother’s name and birthplace
  • complete or partial Social Security number
  • if a veteran, the discharge or claim number
  • education
  • marital status and name of surviving spouse, if there was one
  • date, place, and time of death, and
  • the cause of death

Do you need a death certificate to bury someone?

Yes. Generally, a permit (called a disposition permit or burial permit) is obtained by the funeral establishment through whom you have funeral arrangements.

The burial permit is typically issued in the municipality or county where the death occurred once the death certificate has been processed.

 Once issued, the entity responsible for the final disposition (cemetery or crematory) will add their signature to the Burial Permit to confirm disposition has been completed and take care of filing the completed document with local authorities.

What is a certified copy?

Certified copies of the death certificate are original with the seal of the governmental office in charge of vital statistics, and they are necessary to carry out many tasks after a death — from obtaining a permit for burial or cremation to transferring the deceased person’s property to inheritors.

Who can order copies of a death certificate?

In many states, you can get either informational or “certified” copies of a death certificate. Informational copies are for personal records and are usually available to anyone who requests them.

In an increasing number of states, certified copies are available only to members of the deceased person’s immediate family, the executor of the estate, or someone who can prove that they have a direct financial interest in the estate.

How many copies of the death certificate do I need?

On average, ten certified death certificates are required to settle an estate. You need a death certificate for a number of reasons. Some accounts, like credit cards, cell phone providers, and some bank accounts will not require an actual certified copy on hand.

Establishments that will most likely require to keep a certified copy of a death certificate for their records include insurance companies (health, funeral and life policies) and financial accounts (stocks, bonds, retirement plans etc).

Federal and state tax returns and applications for military benefits will also require their own certified copy. Certified copies will also be required for title transfer of ownership of real estate and motor vehicles.2

How to get copies of a death certificate

Copies can be ordered through the funeral home or mortuary at the time of the death. If time has passed and you need to order death certificates yourself, contact the county or state vital records office.

To find the office that handles vital records in your state, visit the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and click on the link for the state.

How much do death certificate copies cost?

You will have to pay for each copy of the death certificate. The cost depends on your state, but you might expect to pay $10-$15 for the first copy, and less for subsequent copies prepared at the same time.

If you’re serving as the executor of the deceased person’s estate and you pay for the death certificates yourself, you can later reimburse yourself from the estate.

Cake is your go-to for end-of-life resources

We hope this was a clear and useful summary of the information you need to maneuver the process of filing and obtaining copies of the death certificate.

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  1. U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services: Funeral Directors' Handbook on Death Registration and Fetal Death Reporting. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013, www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/misc/hb_fun.pdf

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