Everything You Need to Know About Death Certificates

Funeral Planning

Posted on September 27, 2016 by

Photo: Alan Crawford, Getty Images

When a loved one dies, you'll need to order death certificates to submit to certain agencies to shut down accounts or collect benefits. But how many death certificates should you order? Below you'll learn about the purpose of death certificates, typical uses, how to order them, and how many death certificates you should order.

What is a death certificate?

A death certificate is an official government issued document that states the date, time, location and cause of death. Certificates were originally made and kept by churches, until 1910 when standardized records became mandated by law.

In addition to verifying the cause of someone's death, death certificates are used to track changes in society and mortality trends. Death certificates must be completed by a medical practitioner (doctor, hospice nurse, medical examiner, coroner, etc.) and funeral director, licensed burial agent, or person acting as such (i.e. family member). The medical practitioner completes questions relating to the cause and manner of death, whether an autopsy was performed, if tobacco use contributed to the death, etc. The funeral director, agent or person acting as such, will need the following information about the deceased:

  • Full name

  • Social security number

  • Date of birth

  • Place of birth

  • Address at the time of death

  • Marital status

  • Surviving spouse's name

  • Whether they served in the armed forces

  • Father and mother's name (maiden included)

  • Place of death

  • Highest level of education

  • Race

  • Usual occupation and industry/business

Use the Funeral Planning Checklist to stay organized and document all of the information need for a death certificate so you can easily provide it to your death care professional.

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Many states are moving to an Electronic Death Registration Systems, or EDRS, for filing of death certificates. In other areas, death certificates are filed with the registrar and county health department. While it varies state by state, typically deaths must be reported to the local health department within 72 hours of the death and to the state within five to seven days.

Why do I need to get death certificates?

Death certificates are needed to close accounts, claim benefits, and file taxes. For legal matters, an official certificate is needed while other institutions only require a copy. Check below for scenarios on when you will likley need an original death certificate and when a copy is appropriate.

Generally needs a copy:

  • Social security

  • Banks

  • Credit cards

  • Utilities and phone companies

Likely requires an original:

  • Pensions

  • Military benefits

  • Property transfer (real estate, vehicles, etc.)

  • Insurance

  • 401Ks and stocks (if managed by stock broker, only one copy needed)

  • Selling an estate

  • Property claims

  • Closing a business

  • Future marriages

Where can I get a death certificate?

If you are using a funeral home, ordering them from the funeral director is the easiest way. If you need to order them yourself, you can get them from the county or state vital records office.

To find the state vital records office, click on the relevant state link here.

In some states, you can order death certificates through VitalChek, a website that manages records for many government agencies. They charge a $5-$15 fee per order.

Who can order a certified copy of death certificates?

Certified copies are generally only available to immediate family members, executors, and those who can prove that they have a direct financial interest in the estate. Informational copies are generally available to anyone who requests them.

How many death certificates should you order?

Consider the number of different institutions that might need one; each bank, investment company, etc. and for each property to be transferred; house, boat, etc.

A person with modest means may only need three, while a wealthier person could need 10 or more.

How much do death certificates cost?

The fees for death certificates are set by the state or county. Generally the first copy of a death certificate is more than additional copies. You can expect to pay $10 -$25 for the first certified copy. The local registrar or funeral director will be able to tell you how much a death certificate costs.

Whether you are stopping into your local county or city registrar office or ordering online, copies can be paid for with credit card or check, but not with cash.

Tip: keep your receipts, as fees for death certificates can sometimes be reimbursed from the estate if agreed upon with the executor.

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