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What a Death Certificate Reveals and Why You Need One

With passing comes paperwork. High on the checklist after the death of a parent or loved one will be securing a death certificate, which some call the “most important legal document in existence.”

Common Questions About Death Certificates

With passing comes paperwork. High on the checklist after the death of a parent or loved one will be securing a death certificate, which some call the “most important legal document in existence.

When you are in the midst of funeral planning and navigating your loved one’s after-life care, one of the first things you will do is complete forms for a death certificate. Most funeral homes will help you do this. However, knowing about the process and the required information can help demystify this end-of-life document and explain precisely what a death certificate is and is used for.  

What is a Death Certificate?

A death certificate is a legal document that creates a demographic snapshot of your loved one when they leave this world. Death certificates include statistics and medical information about your loved one, including whether they were cremated or buried. 

You need death certificates as proof of death for inheritances, probate, and registering your loved one’s death with your state. Many funeral homes will help take care of filing and receiving death certificates. Costs and timing vary from state to state. Death certificate fees are an additional cost not included in most funeral home’s pricing and sometimes are paid directly to the government agency in charge.  

Help for Health and History

When genealogists want to explore a family tree, they often start with death certificates to learn more about someone’s age, race, level of education, and marital or military status. These documents provide clues about what life was like for someone.

Death certificates can also help shed light on broader issues to help us understand the health of our communities and contribute to public health investigations.

Death certificates are also a window into social issues of our time. From revealing the confirmed death toll from water in Flint, Michigan, to understanding the U.S. maternal mortality rate, the documents bear witness to more significant societal issues.

Reforms have been proposed to make sure that deaths in police custody are recorded accurately. California’s Death Certificate Project has been working to link overdose deaths on death certificates to the doctors who last prescribed opiates for the deceased. 

How are Death Certificates Used?

Death certificates are primarily used for completing financial tasks after a loved one’s death. Banks, insurance companies, investment firms, and others require certified proof of passing.

Death certificates are required for life insurance policy claims, real estate transactions, transfer of vehicle or boat titles, cashing or transferring stocks or bonds, pension and retirement plans, and closing bank accounts.

It’s crucial to avoid identity fraud and to settle debts by notifying creditors and credit agencies by sending them a death certificate. Planning site Cake lists six reasons you’ll need a death certificate.

What Questions Are Asked to File a Death Certificate?

Like many certificates and forms, filling out a death certificate can bring some unexpected questions. You may feel like you don’t have all the answers when completing the certificate. The information below may help you be better prepared when the time comes.

Your chosen funeral home will handle the first two items on the list and will ask you to help provide other information so they can accurately fill out the form on your behalf.

While death certificates vary from state to state, there are basic types of information that most will require. 

Here are some examples of what may be needed for a death certificate form:  

  • Time, place, and date of death 
  • Whether your loved one was cremated, buried, or donated 
  • Name, age, birth date, and residence of loved one 
  • Whether your loved one served in the U.S. Armed Forces or a combat zone 
  • The full names of your loved one’s spouse, father and mother 
  • Your loved one’s occupation and education 
  • Your loved one’s race and ethnicity 

You must state your relationship to your loved one when you request a death certificate. Legally, only certain people can receive a death certificate — immediate next of kin, legal representative, people or organizations with a personal or property right, or government agencies. 

How Long Will You Wait for a Death Certificate?

Sadly, the answer to this question is “it depends.” The time it takes to receive a death certificate can vary depending on where you live and how busy the government office that handles the task is.

Before certified copies can be printed and sent to you, death certificates are signed by the funeral director, medical certifier, and the state registrar. The process can take several weeks, depending on state timelines and the circumstances surrounding the loved one’s death.

While a funeral home may assist with the process, once the information is passed on to the appropriate governmental agencies, the timeline will depend on that organization’s staffing, timelines, and operations. Sometimes, it can be a frustrating experience for families as red tape and paperwork “hiccups” can make the wait even longer. Don’t be afraid to check in with your chosen funeral home if you have questions about the process and the timeline.

How Many Death Certificates Should You Get?

The number of death certificates needed varies — but everyone should have at least one. Sometimes, an institution just needs to see the certified copy, make a photocopy, and return it to you. In other cases, such as insurance, a death certificate will not be returned to you.

You can find additional information on California, Oregon, and Washington death certificates on their respective state websites. The website Everplans has links for each state.

Your funeral home can also answer additional questions and help you through this sometimes confusing process. Find a nearby funeral provider here.

For more information about death certificates, take a look at Death Certificates 101: A Complete Guide.To learn about other important legal documents you may need, take a look at our article Funeral Planning: Essential Legal Documents Guide.