What you Should Know About Death Certificates
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When a person passes away, there are several important actions necessary to ensure the person’s estate is handled in a timely and appropriate way. To initiate many of these tasks, such as collecting on a life insurance policy or to legally transfer assets, a person will need to have a death certificate as proof of the person’s passing.
Some people seek out death certificates when they are researching family genealogy as well. It should be noted that most states did not start recording deaths until the early 1900s and some states did not start until as late as 1930.
New England states including Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire have records dating back the longest when some towns began the documentation process when the first resident of the town passed away.
In this article we will be covering some important factors about what you need to know about death certificates.
- What is a death certificate?
- How are death certificates used?
- Issuing a death certificate
- What information is on a death certificate?
- What information is on a death certificate?
- Getting copies of a death certificate
- How to make changes to a death certificate
- Are death certificates public records?
- Can I view death certificates online?
What is a death certificate?
A death certificate is an official government document that certifies the date, time, location and cause of death.
It also provides other important information that is used by a variety of entities who have financial interests in the deceased person’s estate, and is also used to track changes in society.
Death certificates must be completed and signed off by a medical practitioner such as a doctor, medical examiner or a coroner, as well as the entity requesting the issuance of a death certificate.
Many times, this is a funeral director or a burial agent, or a family member acting in those capacities.
What are death certificates used for?
Death certificates are used to facilitate closing bank accounts, claim life insurance benefits and file taxes, along with many other personal and legal purposes.
In some instances, a person will need to supply an entity with an official death certificate that bears an official state stamp or seal, and in other cases only a copy will be required.
If you are handling the deceased person’s affairs, here are some scenarios where you will need either a copy, or you will supply an original death certificate, which will be returned to you:
- Social Security
- Local bank accounts
- Credit Cards
- Utilities and phone companies
- Motor vehicle licensing
- Filing a will with your county courthouse
You will need to supply an original death certificate under the following circumstances:
- Closing out a 401K
- Taking control of stocks not held in a trust
- State retirement pensions
- Private company pensions
- Military benefits
- Life insurance policies
- When mortgages and vehicles are insured for payments
- Closing out of state bank accounts
- Transferring property out of state, including real estate or large assets such as cars or boats, etc.
- Closing a corporation
- For burial or scattering of ashes
Can a death certificate be changed?
Yes, one of the common reasons death certificates are changed is incorrect information. The biggest reason you need to make sure the death certificate is accurate is so it doesn’t impact any associated insurance settlements.
You should always check with your states about who can request changes on a death certificate as all states are not created equal.
For example, changing death certificates in Texas is a different process than death certificates in Michigan or death certificates in California.
Who issues a death certificate?
A funeral home or other entity in charge of a deceased person’s remains will be responsible for gathering information that will be used to file and ultimately issue a death certificate.
This will involve getting information from family members and securing the signature of an appropriate medical professional who will certify the death. In some instances, a police officer or a paramedic may also be able to sign a death certificate as well.
State laws dictate that this process be completed within a matter of a few days following the person’s death.
Once the information has been gathered, the death certificate will be filed with the registrar and the county health department where the death took place.
Typically, deaths must be reported to the health department within 72 hours after the death takes place.
What information is on a death certificate?
A death certificate contains important information about the person who passed away. Information will vary from state to state, but at a minimum, the information included on death certificates will include:
- The deceased person’s full name
- Birth date and birthplace
- Father’s name and birthplace
- Mother’s name and birthplace
- Social Security number
- If the deceased was a member of the U.S. armed forces
- Marital status
- Name of surviving spouse
- Cause of death (cancer, heart attack, etc.)
- Manner of death (natural, accident, homicide, etc.)
- Usual occupation
- Date, time, and place of death
- A signature line for a medical professional or coroner to certify the death and information on the application
To see a U.S. Standard Certificate of Death application from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, what specific information is required, and how it might be filled out, go here.
The National Home Funeral Alliance also has several examples of death certificates that you can view as well.
NOTE: Since 1990, for public versions of death certificates, some states may redact the specific cause of death to comply with HIV confidentiality rules. However, immediate family members, government agencies and law enforcement personnel can always access a death certificate containing the full cause of death.
Getting copies of a death certificate
The easiest way to get copies of a death certificate is to order them through the funeral home or mortuary that is handling the deceased’s remains.
In most cases, if you are the executor of the deceased person’s estate, you will need at least 10 copies, and maybe more, depending on the complexity of the person’s estate.
If 60 to 90 days or more has gone by since the deceased person passed away, you will need to contact the county or the state office of vital records to get copies.
Be prepared to pay for copies of the death certificate, which normally run about $10-$15 for the first copy. If you are the executor of the person’s estate, you can reimburse yourself for those costs from the estate at a later date.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains a list of where to write for vital records for each state. You can access the list here.
Informational copies of death certificates are available to anyone who requests them, but certified copies are only available to those with a direct connection to the deceased, such as an immediate family member, an executor, or someone who has a financial interest in the person’s estate.
Some jurisdictions approach this differently and may be more restrictive regarding the availability of death certificates. For example, in New York, only close relatives such as a spouse, parent, child or sibling of a deceased person can obtain a death certificate. The only other exception in this case is by a person or organization that has a documented lawful right, a medical need, or a New York state court order.
In all cases, you should wait for the coroner or medical examiner to determine a final cause of death before trying to order copies of the death certificate.
Many institutions, such as insurance companies and banks, may require the final and official cause of death to be shown on the certificate before transacting business with an executor.
How to make changes to a death certificate
There are times when the information on a death certificate changes, is missing, or is originally recorded inaccurately. When this happens, initiating changes in the death certificate can be by anyone as long as evidence is presented to support the claim and the changes are approved by the person who originally approved the death certificate.
However, some states have restrictions on who can file the necessary paperwork. You will need to check the laws of your state to see to what degree you are eligible to change a death certificate.
Making changes on a death certificate is important because it may impact life insurance policies as well as demographic data. All errors such as misspelled names, wrong addresses and other personal information should always be corrected.
The other thing to consider is that there may be time restrictions on who can make a change in a death certificate. After a certain length of time, you may only be able to make changes through your state’s vital statistics and information registry.
In many states, you can initiate the change process online by accessing forms and researching the step-by-step process. However, to complete changes, you will probably need to mail those forms along with supporting documentation because in most cases originals of documents are needed. Supporting documentation could include a birth certificate, armed forces discharge papers, or other similar types of information.
You may also be able to amend a death certificate in person by going to your local registrar. Local registrars will vary by jurisdiction, but may include a county health department, county clerk, or county recorder. You can also visit the funeral home that handled the deceased’s services and they will probably be able to make the changes for you.
Are death certificates public?
Just like marriage and divorce records, death certificates are public records.
Your county recorder, county clerk or other similar record-keeping body will maintain the death certificate on file and it can be accessed for viewing at any time.
To view death certificates when a person passes away outside of the United States, you will need to access the National Center for Health Statistics.
After the death certificate information has been received and entered into the system, the actual certificate is sent to the appropriate physician or medical examiner for their signature. It is then submitted to the county’s vital statistics office where certified copies are created. This can take anywhere from 10 days to several weeks.
Death Certificate Delays
Delays can occur when there is an investigation surrounding the death, an autopsy needs to be performed or there are other delays for various reasons.
One of these delays may be due to a doctor refusing to sign a death certificate if they are unsure of the cause of death. While there are laws that prevent doctors from delaying a final death certificate without good reasons, you may encounter this and you could have to force the issue to get the death certificate completed.
In other cases, the cause of death may be missing due to the fact that it is unknown or that there were several health issues that were contributing issues to the cause of death.
After they have been signed, certified copies of the death certificate with an official seal are generated and then returned to the requesting parties, such as funeral homes or funeral directors, who will then disburse the official copies to requestors.
Can death certificates be found online?
Each state is responsible for administering its own records and some states have been more proactive than others. Record keeping for deaths was not standardized until the early 1900s and while some states have records that date back to much earlier, such as Massachusetts which began keeping vital records in the 1600s, others have been far less diligent.
In other instances, some states allow access only to family members and authorized members will need to go through a process to order and view copies online.
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