What is a death certificate—and why do loved ones need it?

A death certificate is the official record of the death of an individual and includes the dates of birth and death, gender, place of residence, and location and cause of death. It is prepared by the county health department, recorded in the county and maintained by county or state offices.

Why is it needed?

Other than simply recording the death, why do loved ones need it? Well, the agent of the deceased (that is, the executor of the will, successor trustee on a living trust or other personal representative) must provide proof of death to, at least:

• collect survivor or death benefits
• claim life insurance proceeds
• manage the decedent’s assets
• probate or execute the will, and
• prepare fiduciary tax returns

Who prepares the certificate?

Death certificates are prepared and maintained by the County Health Department in the county of the death—sometimes called the Bureau or Office of Vital Statistics or Vital Records. This is the same agency that maintains birth, marriage and other vital records.

Oftentimes, while the family is making arrangements for the funeral, burial or cremation, the mortuary, cemetery or crematorium will ask for the necessary information and then contact the local health agency to prepare the death certificate.

Otherwise, the family can submit the information directly (such as when making independent funeral arrangements or making a whole-body donation). The decedent’s agent contacts directly the County Health Department in the county of the death.

The county agency also requires confirmation of death from a physician, coroner, paramedic or police officer. This confirmation is handled directly by the agency and does not involve the agent or family of the deceased.

How does the agent get copies?

Typically, the mortuary, cemetery or crematorium submitting the information will also request a number of certified copies to be sent to the decedent’s agent.

If the agent needs to request certified copies (either directly or for additional copies), he or she can contact the County Health Department in the county of the death. For convenience, the agent may be able to request certificates from the county’s online website, by telephone or by fax.

Requests for death certificates are treated with urgency, and response time is generally 7 to 14 days. Most agencies offer expedited response (for an additional fee).

What is a certified copy?

While the law varies by state, typically only certain individuals can obtain an authorized copy of the death certificate: relative of the deceased—parent, personal guardian, spouse or domestic partner, sibling, child, grandparent or grandchild; representative of a funeral home or an attorney, acting on behalf of a relative; representative of a government agency with agency-authorized interest. The availability of an informational (or transcribed) copy is less restricted. An informational copy generally contains the same information as an authorized copy or may omit the cause of death information.

Again, depending upon state law, either authorized or informational copies can be provided as certified copies for conducting business on behalf of the deceased. A certified copy is a duplicate of the original, embossed with an official seal.

A visit to the county website will provide more information about specific choices given the applicable state law.

How many will be needed—and at what cost?

A certified copy of the death certificate will be needed by the organizations that hold assets of the deceased, including:

• Life insurance agencies
• Banks and brokerage firms
• Pension or retirement account administrators
• Social Security Administration
• Department of Veterans Affairs

While some organizations will photocopy the certificate and return it to the agent, others will retain the certificate for their records.

The number of copies needed, then, depends on the assets of the deceased. It is likely that an agent will need six copies or more.

The cost of a certified death certificate varies by state. On average, the cost for the first copy is $18.00. Additional copies are sometimes discounted, averaging about $11.00.

~~~

Melanie Cullen is the author of Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won’t Have To (Nolo), a workbook/CD-ROM for preparing and organizing your important records—for yourself and for your loved ones. She is a management consultant with TerraSys Consulting, Inc. and serves on the Projects@Work editorial board. She holds an MBA from the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University.

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Comment by Marsha Whitaker on March 25, 2010 at 11:25pm
I'm from PA.
Comment by Marsha Whitaker on March 25, 2010 at 11:25pm
Hi I'm Marsha from, I just want to share that I had an easy and quick time obtaining death certificate online ( vital records online ). This happened because my relatives far away would not believe that my grandfather has died a year ago. We have no communication with our relatives in London for a long time. So I sent them a copy. I appreciate that you specified the value of death certificate. It's true that this is really needed.

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