Many death records are available online through government sources
Local newspapers, obituary pages, and social media can help you determine whether someone recently died
States and the U.S. government have online death records (sometimes called death indexes) for deaths within the past 50 years or so
To find out if you’re in someone’s will, you may want to visit a probate court
To get a copy of someone’s death certificate, contact your state’s vital records division
If you need to find out if someone died, your best options may be to talk to someone who knew the individual — whether you talk in person or virtually through social media. For online sources, newspapers and churches may list obituaries on their websites. Local and national governments also maintain databases of deceased residents. You may find an online database of deceased residents created by a city, county, state, or cemetery. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also publishes a national database that collects the information from state health departments.
There are also sites that specialize in making death records (also called death indexes) easily searchable online. For information on deaths from decades or centuries ago, consider genealogy websites (you may need a membership), public library databases, and local historical societies.
To obtain an official copy of someone’s death certificate, you should check the vital records division of the county or state where the decedent lived. You will need a copy of the death certificate to initiate probate for a deceased person. If someone died and you are named in their will, you should generally be notified by the executor.
The most straightforward way to find out if someone died is likely to speak with a friend or family member of the person. If you can’t do that, here are some ways to find out if someone died:
With so many people using social media, you may be able to find a post or mention of someone’s death. Someone’s page may be removed after their death, but if you can find the person’s profile, look for a notification stating that person has died or that their page has been memorialized.
Local newspapers usually publish obituary pages with the recent deaths of local residents. If you know where a person lived, their local newspaper may allow you to search obituaries online. Similarly, there are other sites that publish obituaries and memorials online. For example, a funeral home might publish memorials and cemeteries might publish burial information. Some sites also specialize in amalgamating online obituaries.
Learn what happens when you die without a will.
Local governments maintain death records for their residents, though these aren’t always digitized and you may have to pay money to search their records. Even if they’re free to use, you may need to make a request and then wait days or weeks to get results. (Deaths from decades or centuries in the past are much less likely to be available digitally.)
You can also search online for the death records from a city, county, or state database. Two useful internet search terms are “death index” or “death records” combined with the state or locality where you’re searching. The National Death Index from the CDC collects information from local death indexes, but it may be easier to search a local database online instead of using the CDC database.
Also consider searching the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), which comes from the Social Security Administration's own records of people with a Social Security number. (The SSA database is also available online through genealogy sites, the U.S. national archives, and some third parties).
Local courthouses have information about recently deceased residents because a will enters the public record after it has gone through the probate process. You will probably need to visit the courthouse in person to search its records. If possible, call ahead to ask if and how you can search the court’s records.
Related article: How to know if you’re in someone’s will
Genealogy websites commonly have searchable databases, but you may need to have a membership (some sites might offer free memberships) and this option may work better for deaths that occurred in the past. When using the database, you may need to search through pages of records unless you have more information on the deceased person than just their name. For example, it may help to know their date of birth, the city where they were born, the city where they died, the name of their spouse, or the names of their parents.
Your public library (or a library in the area where the person lived) may have a database of local deaths. Not all libraries will have an easily searchable database and you may need to ask a librarian for assistance.
There are also many historical societies that maintain death records for club members and local residents. Since a historical society is generally associated with a certain country or culture, this option is especially useful if you’re looking for someone connected to that group. Other countries also have historical societies, which you may need to contact if you’re looking up someone who wasn’t a U.S. citizen or resident.
A death certificate is a legal record of a person’s death. If you need a copy of someone’s death certificate, and if you have a legitimate reason to request a copy, then you should contact the vital records division of the state or county where the person lived. The vital records division, which is part of the state’s department of health and is sometimes called the vital statistics division, maintains birth and death certificates for residents of the state. Who can receive a copy of someone’s death certificate varies by state and not all states allow you to apply online.
Learn more about how to get someone’s death certificate.
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Derek is a tax expert at Policygenius in New York City. He has written about multiple personal finance topics in the past, and his work has been covered by Yahoo Finance, MSN, Business Insider and CNBC.
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