What is a Death Certificate?
Whether you’ve recently lost a loved one or have in the past, there may come a time when you are issued or need a death certificate. Death certificates are certified documents issued by medical practitioners such as coroners, morticians, or doctors, certifying that the person is deceased and listing the date, location, and cause of their death. This data is then registered with the local health office or office of vital records to create death indexes for public data and legal reasons.
You also need the certified death certificate for a number of other legal purposes, including closing out the deceased person’s affairs and estate.
What Does a Death Certificate Look Like?
Death certificates vary a great deal from state to state but are typically embossed or ensigned documents on heavy paper. They contain a signature issued by the residing medical practitioner and a seal from the local government or managing body.
In most states, the death certificate will list the time of death, cause of death, and place of death. This document is signed and certified as witnessed proof that is correct. The issuing funeral home or mortuary retains a copy on file and issues a copy to the local vital records office.
How Long Does It Take to Receive a Death Certificate?
In most cases, a funeral home will issue a death certificate within 1-4 days of receiving the body. In cases where the cause of death is unclear, or an ongoing investigation is impeding the process, it can take 12 days or more to issue a death certificate. In some states, law mandates that a death certificate must be registered and issued within 72 hours of the death.
You will have to provide the funeral home or mortuary with data including the deceased’s:
- Full legal name
- Social security number
- Date of birth (If unknown, request a copy of their birth certificate)
- Last address
- Armed Forces history
- Marital status at time of death
- If married, surviving spouse’s maiden name
- Father’s legal name
- Mother’s maiden name
- Highest level of education
Some states require less information. If you are uncertain of some of this information, you can order a certified birth certificate at Vital Records Online to fill in the date of birth, birthplace, and parents’ names.
What Do You Do with a Death Certificate?
Most states require that family members register the death of their loved one within 5 days of death or, in extreme cases, immediately upon receipt of the death certificate.
You will also need a death certificate to:
- Claim life insurance
- Claim pension and Medicaid benefits
- Close accounts
- Close estate and affairs
- Obtain a burial or cremation permit
In most cases, you will need at least 10 certified copies of the death certificate and as many as 10-20 photocopies of a certified death certificate.
Who Can Request a Copy of a Death Certificate?
Some states maintain death certificates as public health records and anyone can claim them. In other cases, only a relative or legal representative can request a copy of the death certificate. You may have to prove your identity and relationship to the deceased when requesting copies of death certificates online. You may also be able to submit proof of legal representation instead.
However, public copies of death certificates will likely be truncated to show a general description of death rather than the actual cause. Original death certificates are issued with the full cause of death, while public records typically display simple death types including natural causes, accidental, homicide, suicide, and declared in absentia. In addition, if the death certificate is for an infant, it may not be available as public records.
All family members, legal representatives, and government authorities can request copies of the full death certificate at any time.
In many states you must be one of the following to receive an original certified death certificate:
- Parents (a copy of birth certificate is required as proof)
- Child of legal age (a copy of your birth certificate is required as proof)
- Sibling (a copy of your birth certificate is required as proof)
- Current spouse (A copy of your marriage certificate is required)
- Legal representative (a written statement or court order is required as proof
- Guardian with legal custody (court order is required as proof)
How to Order Copies of the Death Certificate Online or by Mail
You can easily order a copy of the death certificate online or by mail using Vital Records Online. However, you will have to provide the decedent’s:
- Full legal name
- Mother’s full maiden name
- Father’s full maiden name
- Date of death
- Place of death
- Proof of relationship
- Reason for death certificate
- Phone number
In some states, less information is required and you won’t have to prove your relationship. However, you will not likely be issued a certified copy.
You can order certified copies of the death certificate at your funeral home. You can also use VitalRecordsOnline to order certified copies of the death certificate online, even if it has been years since the deceased passed away.