If you're handling the affairs of a loved one who passed away, you'll very likely need copies of the death certificate. When someone dies, the death is registered with the local or state vital records office within a matter of days. You can then request copies of the death certificate from the vital records office. Here are the details.
The funeral home, cremation organization, or other person in charge of the deceased person's remains will prepare and file the death certificate. Preparing the certificate involves gathering personal information from family members and obtaining the signature of a doctor, medical examiner, or coroner. The process must be completed quickly—within three to ten days, depending on state law.
A death certificate contains important information about the person who has died. Details vary from state to state, but often include:
In many states, you can get either informational or "certified" copies of a death certificate. Informational copies are for personal records and are usually available to anyone who requests them.
Certified copies bear an official stamp. You'll need a certified copy of a death certificate to carry out many tasks after a death—from obtaining a permit for burial or cremation to transferring the deceased person's property to inheritors. In an increasing number of states, certified copies are available only to members of the deceased person's immediate family, the executor of the estate, and people who can prove that they have a direct financial interest in the estate.
Where can you obtain certified copies of a death certificate? The simplest way is to order them through the funeral home or mortuary at the time of the death. If you're in charge of winding up the deceased person's affairs, you should ask for at least 10 copies. You will need one each time you claim property or benefits that belonged to the deceased person, including life insurance proceeds, Social Security benefits, payable on death accounts (which include many bank and retirement accounts), veterans benefits, and many others.
If the time of death has passed and you need to order death certificates yourself, contact the county or state vital records office. For deaths that occurred within the past few months, you should start with the county office, because it is more likely to have the certificate on file. After a few months have passed, the state office will probably have it, too.
To get a certified copy of a death certificate, you can usually fill out a request form provided by your vital records office. If there isn't one, you'll likely have to provide information such as:
In some states, like Connecticut, you'll have to provide proof of your relationship to the deceased person (such as a marriage or birth certificate); in others, like California, you will have to submit a sworn statement with your request that states you're the executor of the deceased person's estate or a close family member.
You will have to pay for each copy of the death certificate. The cost depends on your state, but you might expect to pay $15 to $30 for the first copy. If you order additional copies at the same time, they will probably be less expensive. If you're serving as the executor of the deceased person's estate and pay for the death certificates yourself, you can later reimburse yourself from the estate.
For the specific rules that apply to obtaining death certificates in your state, see Burial and Cremation Laws.
To order copies of a death certificate, contact the county or state vital records office in the place where the death occurred. They will tell you exactly what you need to do.
Locate a county vital records office. To find your local vital records office online, do an online search using "vital records office" and your county's name. If you can't find it this way, find your county's general website, and try navigating to the "registrar" or "clerk." Or just call your county clerk's office.
Locate a state vital records office. To find the office that handles vital records in your state, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Vital Records tool and click on your state.
For a complete guide to settling a deceased person's estate or trust, including more information about death certificates, see The Executor's Guide, by Mary Randolph.
For help organizing personal information and records—including birth, marriage, and death certificates—in a complete, easy-to-use system, see Get It Together, by Melanie Cullen.