Death Certificates: What you need to know

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Just as a birth certificate officially documents an individual’s arrival into the world, a death certificate verifies their departure. 

What is a death certificate?

A death certificate is an official, state-issued record of an individual’s death. 

What information is on a death certificate?

A death certificate includes the person’s full legal name, date of birth, and Social Security number. It includes the state in which the Social Security number was issued and the state of residence at the time of death. It provides the month and year of death. It also documents the place, time and cause of death. 

Who collects and completes the information on a death certificate?

The coroner or attending physician, if any, signs off on the information needed to issue a death certificate, including verification of identity and the official cause of death. The finality of a death certificate makes it pretty inflexible, and changes are not made easily or lightly. 

When and why is a death certificate needed?

There are many grey areas of existence. People ghost, disappear, go off the grid, or get lost in the desert. Mistaken identity, amnesia, missing persons who reappear after years, and even faked deaths are the stuff of true-crime and “unsolved mystery” TV dramas. That is because stories like these, although relatively rare, have occurred in real life. It is not legally sufficient to declare or assume that someone ‘must be dead’. 

A death certificate is an official, legally accepted verification that an individual is deceased. It is mandatory for a number of procedures and purposes. Surviving family members, in particular spouses, need to submit a copy of a death certificate when applying for death benefits such as pensions, life insurance and Social Security benefits. It is essential in settling matters related to estates, wills, and inheritances. Anyone who was widowed must produce a copy of the deceased spouse’s death certificate when registering to remarry. 

Law enforcement officials may require a death certificate to establish a cause of death in certain investigations. 

For funeral arrangements, crematoria and funeral homes cannot legally accept or process deceased people without official identification or a death certificate. 

Who issues a death certificate? 

Death certificates are issued by the state in which the death occurred. The US Federal Government does not collect or maintain death records.

How can I get a copy of a death certificate? 

The regulations vary from one state to another. You will have to ask for information from the government offices of the state in which the death certificate was issued. Some states consider the document to be public domain, and therefore available to anyone who requests it. Other states will only provide death certificates to certain people, usually the immediate family members of the deceased. You may need to verify your relationship with the deceased in order to be able to receive a copy of the death certificate. A sibling, for example, may need to provide an official copy of their own birth certificate bearing the same parent’s name. Some of this documentation may need to be notarized. Check with your state government offices or legal counsel.

In property rights and estate cases, your legal representation may also submit a request to the relevant state offices for one or more copies of a death certificate. 

If an official resident of one state dies in a different state, how is the death certificate issued?

The death certificate is issued in the state where the individual died. If the death of a US citizen occurs abroad, relatives should contact the US embassy or consulate in the relevant country for more information. 

Is it possible to see death certificates online and print them out?

Death certificates are documents of public record. 

One critical feature of a death certificate is that for most purposes, it must be verifiably authentic. It may be possible to download and print them out from a website, but it is unlikely that a certificate obtained thus would be accepted as official. For any official purpose, death certificates would most likely have to be notarized or officially issued by the state. Check with the relevant state office for more information about their policies.

Why do some people find death certificates fascinating?

Each death certificate is a little piece of history. Death certificates are more than just personal, individual records. You may learn about your family’s medical history through researching death certificates, for example. On a larger scale, they are important for genealogical research and historical fact. Historians, whether academic or amateur history buffs, gain many insights into the past through this wealth of information about names, birthplaces, lifespans, and dates and causes of death going back decades or centuries. Statisticians and public health and public policy experts use data from death certificates to track historic and demographic tendencies and changes over time. Information from death certificates is used to document the impact of events such as wars, natural disasters, and pandemics. A death certificate is a small window into one life, but a tile in the mosaic of humanity.