After the death of a loved one, it’s easy to find yourself overwhelmed. Along with grief, many people find a large number of logistics required to tie up loose ends.
One of the things you’ll need to manage everything is your loved one’s death certificate. This is a legal document proving the circumstances and date of death of your loved one.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What’s the Difference Between an Original Death Certificate and a Copy?
- Who Needs an Original Death Certificate After a Loved One Dies?
- Who Will Accept a Copy of the Original Death Certificate After a Loved One Dies?
- Where to Get Originals and Copies of the Death Certificate
There are so many reasons you need a death certificate, but not all parties need original copies. How many copies of the death certificate do you actually need, and who needs them? These questions quickly become confusing, especially if you’re not familiar with the steps following a loss.
While the answer will be different for every individual, you can make an educated guess of just how many original death certificates you’ll need. In this article, we’ll review when you need a certified original or a copy.
What’s the Difference Between an Original Death Certificate and a Copy?
The terms “original” death certificate and “copy” are a bit confusing, so it’s worth diving deeper into what they mean. Both are technically copies. Instead, think of them as certified copies (“originals”) and informational copies (“copies”).
A certified copy is a death certificate issued by an authorized person, usually your county’s vital record office. These are used for legal purposes, and they include a government seal certifying that they’re authentic and real.
The alternative is an uncertified, informational copy. These photocopies of certified copies, so they don’t include their own court-approved seal. This isn’t a “legal” document, and it can’t prove identity. Yet, it’s often enough for less formal requirements after the death, such as closing accounts.
Who Needs an Original Death Certificate After a Loved One Dies?
Most individuals request upwards of 8 original copies for the reasons below. However, the actual number will vary based on your situation.
1. Life insurance and health insurance
Suppose you’re trying to access your loved one’s life insurance benefits. In that case, they will require an original, certified copy of the death certificate. The same is true for health insurance. This is to limit fraud and ensure the individual has actually passed.
2. 401Ks and retirement plans
Similarly, to cash out someone’s retirement funds or 401K, the beneficiary will need to provide a certified death certificate. Since these funds need to be transferred safely and securely, extra precautions are taken to ensure the account holder is deceased.
3. Military benefits
Military organizations like the VA will also request real copies of the death certificate. There are many military benefits available to surviving family members, like military burials, particular cemeteries, and headstones.
4. Out-of-state bank accounts
If your loved one had bank accounts that were located out-of-state, they’ll likely ask for a certified copy for their own records.
This is less common for in-state bank accounts, but certain banks may require an original, certified copy. Banks need to be extra cautious when transferring funds across state lines, so they keep these documents for their records.
5. Title transfer
Suppose you’re transferring the ownership of real estate or motor vehicles. In that case, you can expect to go through a lot of legal paperwork. This includes providing an original death certificate. You’ll also need to prove you’re the legal beneficiary of this property. Hold onto any loan information in case you come across the car loan death clause.
6. State tax returns
When completing tax returns for your loved one after his or her death, you might need to submit a death certificate with this as well. You don't have to worry about this for federal taxes, but you should check with your state rules to determine if they need a copy or not.
7. Transferring human remains
If you’re transferring your loved one’s remains, it’s a good idea to have a certified copy of the death certificate. If you’re flying wish ashes, for example, they are likely to ask for this documentation at TSA checkpoints.
8. Stock certificates, bonds, and money market accounts
Lastly, suppose your loved one had any stocks, bonds, or money market accounts. In that case, you’ll need to submit a certified copy of the death certificate to access these accounts. The trader or bank will keep a copy of this for their own records.
Who Will Accept a Copy of the Original Death Certificate After a Loved One Dies?
The following organizations are much more likely to accept a photocopy, scan, or fax of a certified copy:
1. Credit agencies
It’s essential to report the death to credit bureaus to protect your loved one’s credit. They usually require a written notice of the death and a request for the term “deceased” to be included in their credit report. Within this report, you’ll need to include a copy of their death certificate via mail or digital file.
2. Cell phone providers
To close your loved one’s cell phone account, you’ll need to prove their death with a copy of the death certificate. They won’t require the original copy, and you can contact your specific provider for more information.
3. In-state banks
Most in-state banks will also accept a copy of the loved one’s death certificate. All banks are different, but many do not require a certified copy as long as it’s located in-state. Crossing state or country lines is a bit more complicated.
You’ll likely need to visit the DMV for reasons related to your loved one’s driving record, license, and so on. In that case, they also will make their own photocopy of a certified copy. They usually store a digital copy with your loved one’s file.
5. Family member employers
Grieving can be one of the most challenging parts of losing a loved one. Many employers allow bereavement time if their employees provide a copy of the death certificate. Ensure close family members have a copy of this document to pass on to their employers.
Where to Get Originals and Copies of the Death Certificate
There are a few things to know about getting death certificates. First, you can request more certified copies at any time from your county’s vital records office. There is no limit on when you can request these and how many you can order, though there might be a cost.
Otherwise, you can make copies of your certified death certificate at home without any special equipment. Many organizations will assist you in making copies. For example, if you bring your copy into your loved one’s bank. They might wish to copy it themselves to verify its authenticity.
If you submit the death certificate via mail or online, you only need a scanner or scanning tool. Today, phone apps are capable of taking a high-quality scan without needing a bulky scanner.
When you make your scan, ensure your image is clear and easy to read. If your county has any seals or special symbols, they should also be visible. From there, save your death certificate securely and send it on its way.
Understanding Death Certificates
It’s often confusing to recognize just how many death certificates are needed after the passing of a loved one. The paperwork alone is enough to leave anyone feeling exhausted.
Remember, you don’t have to do everything alone or all at once. Take each day step-by-step and keep your deceased loved one’s wishes at the front of your mind.
Many organizations and companies are willing to work with you to verify the death of your loved one. They’re available to help you figure out if you need an original or copy. They can even help you create the correct scans.
Once you tie up all of the loose ends, it’s important to hold onto these documents for your own records. The death certificate is one of the most critical parts of ensuring your loved one’s affairs are settled.
Taking care of each step in the process keeps their assets and legacy safe. Though it’s complicated, it’s a final kindness and goodbye to someone you love.
Post-planning tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, handling their unfinished business can be overwhelming without a way to organize your process. We have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.