How to get a death certificate and what you need it for

Pay a fee to request copies of the death record from the office of vital records.

Elissa

Elissa Suh

Published July 23, 2019

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KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • A death certificate is a legal record of death

  • Death records are filed with the state vital records office

  • Multiple copies will be needed to settle the deceased's affairs

  • Request copies from the funeral parlor or vital records office directly

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 can be requested through the funeral home or directly from the vital records office. However, 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.

In this article:

What’s in 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
  • Parental information
  • Spousal information
  • Last known address
  • Occupation and industry
  • Medical examiner’s signature

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. We’ll discuss who can get copies of death certificates next.

Who can get a copy of the death certificate?

Not everyone can obtain a copy of the death certificate. Most typically, only certain people can request this record with few questions asked:

  • Immediate family: spouse, parent, child, sibling
  • Funeral director
  • Government agency

Ultimately, each state decides who can get a copy of the death certificate, and what type (informational or certified) they’re entitled to. Check with your local vital records office to find out.

Why you need the 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. 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
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How to obtain 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.

Preparing the death certificate

Most people don’t file the death certificate themselves; instead, it’s prepared by the funeral home or a medical professional, like a coroner or certified physician, who confirms the time and place of death. In conjunction with a funeral director, it will be 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.

Filing requirements

Basic information about the decedent is required for preparing the death certificate. Someone close to the decedent can provide many of these personal details — 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 — will have to be provided by someone close to the decedent.

Other information, like time and cause of death, and burial instructions (cremation or burial) have to be provided by a certified medical professional. (They will also need to provide their license number on the request form.)

Requesting 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.

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.

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