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Death certificate basics

  • What happens when someone dies can take many different forms — religious funeral or secular? Open-casket memorial or closed? Small, family-only gathering or one open to the community? Formal obituary, or heartfelt, or funny? Traditional burial, or green burial, or cremation? However you enact the directives of your loved one or choose on their behalf, one thing is absolutely crucial: you'll need multiple copies of the death certificate. Rules and procedures vary by state, but here are the basics for the U.S.:


    Why is the death certificate so essential?

    You’ll need the death certificate to settle legal and financial affairs, including accessing bank accounts, filing insurance claims, selling the deceased’s real estate and car, and recouping any survivor’s benefits. Death certificates also facilitate genealogical research and serve an important purpose at the state and federal level—government agencies use them to monitor health trends and improve prevention efforts.


    What information appears on the death certificate?

    Death certificates include identifying information, like name, address, and social security number. They also list the date, place, time, and cause of death. Some states, such as New York, release two types of death certificate—the “standard” certificate documents that someone has died but withholds the cause of death, which the state regards as confidential.


    Who prepares the certificate? What about when someone dies at home?

    The U.S. standard certificate includes a section for the funeral director to complete and one for the physician or medical examiner/coroner. A hospice nurse can pronounce the death of a patient in hospice care. In certain states, paramedics can declare a death; in others, they must take the deceased to a hospital.


    Who can request copies of the certificate?

    In some states, members of the public with a “tangible interest” can make a request. In New York, only immediate family and those directly responsible for disposition of the body can request a death certificate with the confidential medical report; a larger group, including legal representatives, can request the standard certificate.


    How do you request a death certificate?

    If you’re making the request right away, the funeral home or mortuary can assist you. If some time has passed, you can apply with the department of vital records for the county or state where the person died (the CDC maintains a helpful directory for each state). You may also be able to request it electronically via a service like VitalChek. You’ll have to pay a fee. The document will probably take a few weeks to arrive, although some states expedite for an additional fee.


    When should you request the death certificate?

    It won’t be ready immediately—the funeral director will have to gather information, and a medical certifier will have to sign. However, the department of vital records does need this information as soon as possible, and the funeral director can’t get a burial permit until it’s complete, so it should be done within three to ten days. If the medical examiner has not yet finalized cause of death, wait to make your request—insurance companies often require this information.


    How many copies should you request?

    To be safe, go with 10.

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