A death certificate is a legal record of someone’s death. When someone dies, their death needs to be formally registered with the state vital records division. This is the same place where the birth certificates are registered as well.
The death certificate is typically prepared by a medical examiner and you can get one through the funeral home or directly from the vital records office. It can take a few weeks to get a death certificate, and there may be restrictions on who can request a certified copy or what information might be available to them.
Aside from providing legal documentation of a person’s death, the death certificate is integral when it comes to closing the estate of the deceased. It is particularly important if you’re the executor of the estate, who will need death certificate copies when settling a decedent’s financial accounts or notifying government agencies. Beneficiaries who want to file a life insurance claim will also want a copy, as well as anyone doing some genealogy research.
What goes into a death certificate?
The information included in a death certificate may change based on the state where it is issued. Here are some common things you can expect:
Decedent's full name and Social Security number
Date of birth
Time and place of death
Last known address
Occupation and industry
Medical examiner’s signature
How long does it take to get a death certificate?
In order to get a copy of the death certificate, someone first needs to prepare and file it with the vital records division of the state health department before you can request copies, which means getting a death certificate can take at least two weeks.
Most people don’t complete a family member or loved one's death certificate themselves; instead, it’s prepared by funeral director working in conjunction with a medical professional who confirms the time and place of death.
1. Provide information about the deceased to the funeral director
Someone close to the decedent must provide personal details to the funeral director. This information includes the deceased’s name, sex, Social Security number, deceased’s last known address, mother’s maiden name, father ’s name, veteran status, marital status and information about the surviving spouse, job occupation and industry.
2. Have the funeral director and medical professional complete the certificate
Other information, like time and cause of death, and burial instructions (cremation or burial) have to be provided by a medical professional, like a coroner or certified physician. They will also need to provide their license number on the request form.
Once the death certificate is completed, it's submitted to the state or county vital records office, which is part of the health department. Local laws will dictate the timeline, but most typically death certificates should be filed within 72 hours of death.
3. Get certified copies
Because funeral homes often help to prepare the death certificate, they can usually provide you with a few copies for a fee as well. You can also make a direct request from the local vital records office. It can take anywhere from two to four weeks to get a certified copy of a death certificate.
Many states and counties even offer online requests through the government-endorsed VitalChek network, which even allows you to check the status of your application form.
In order to request a copy, you’ll need to show valid government-issued photo identification (ex. driver’s license or birth certificate) and documentation showing your relationship to the person whose certificate you are requesting. (For example, if the decedent is your spouse, you could show your marriage certificate as proof.)
Each state determines the processing fee for getting copies of the death certificates. There may also be extra fees associated with requesting a copy online or for postage.
Who can get a copy of the death certificate
Not everyone can obtain a copy of the death certificate. Usually only certain people can request this record with few questions asked:
Executor or administrator of the estate
Immediate family member (spouse, parent, child, or sibling)
Ultimately, each state decides who can get a copy of the death certificate, and what type (informational or certified copy) they’re entitled to. Check with your local vital records office to find out.
Additionally, to make sure the right people are managing your estate after you're gone, you should nominate an executor in your will.
Is a death certificate public information?
The registrar of vital statistics keeps a record of all births and deaths. It will depend on the state whether or not the death certificates are available to the public, and what info is included on them (such as cause of death). Some states are more lenient than others and might offer informational copies that can be requested by the public. California, for example, makes informational copies of the death certificate available to everyone.
In other states, it’s common for death certificates to become public only after a certain period of time has passed, usually a few decades. (The exact time period may vary from state to state.) Before that, you need to have a reason to request a copy of someone’s death certificate and proof of your relationship to that person.
What to do with a death certificate
Since a death certificate is legal proof that someone is dead, it can serve many purposes. It is especially useful and important document for an executor of the estate to have to settle the deceased’s affairs and begin probate. However, the executor is not the only person who might need one. Copies of the death certificate required to do any of the following:
Close a bank account and investment accounts of the deceased
Notify government agencies, like Social Security or Veterans Affairs, of the death
Notify mortgage lenders and creditors
File a life insurance claim
Claim Medicaid benefits, if you’re the spouse or parent of the deceased
Claim pension benefits if you’re the spouse of the deceased