When someone dies, the death must be registered with the local or state vital records office within a matter of days. The vital records office can then issue copies of the death certificate, which you may want or your personal records or to handle a deceased person's affairs.
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, and are necessary 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, or someone who can prove that they have a direct financial interest in the estate.
The simplest way to get certified copies of a death certificate is to order them through the funeral home or mortuary at the time of the death. If you are in charge of winding up the deceased person's affairs, you should ask for at least ten 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, 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.
You will have to pay for each copy of the death certificate. The cost depends on your state, but you might expect to pay $10 or $15 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 you 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 the local vital records office online, start with the county's official website. You'll usually be able to find the county website using the following formula, replacing "XX" with the state abbreviation:
For example, you can find the website for King County, Washington, at http://www.co.king.wa.us.
Once you've reached the county website, look for the "registrar" or "clerk."
Locate a state vital records office. To find the office that handles vital records in your state, visit the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and click on the link for the 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 with Shae Irving.