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How To Get a Death Certificate (and Why It’s Important)

Last updated 03/19/2024 by

Lacey Stark

Edited by

Fact checked by

Death certificates can be obtained at a state or county vital records office and can be requested by mail, online, or in person. They are important because a certified copy is needed by family members, the executor of the will, or a legal representative to settle the estate, as well as for other legal and financial purposes that may be impacted by a person’s passing.
In addition to the emotional trauma and upheaval that comes with the death of a loved one, there are usually a lot of legal, administrative, and financial matters that need to be handled as well. Many of these issues require proof of the person’s death before they can be settled, and that proof is provided through a death certificate.
Read on to learn how and where to obtain a loved one’s death records, as well as who can legally request them and what you’ll need to use them for.

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What is a death certificate?

Much like a birth certificate is a record of someone’s birth, a death certificate is a record of someone’s death. As with other significant life events, such as marriage and divorce, the information needs to be officially registered with the state’s vital records office. Information contained in a death certificate may vary depending on the state you live in, but it will typically include the following details:
  • The decedent’s full legal name and Social Security number
  • Date and place of birth
  • Marital status (single, married, or divorced)
  • Name of spouse, if applicable
  • Parents’ names, places of birth, and (in some cases) Social Security numbers
  • Last known address of the decedent
  • Occupation and industry of the decedent
  • The time and date when the passing occurred
  • The cause of death
  • Signature of the medical examiner, coroner, or other medical professional
  • Signature of the funeral director, if applicable
A funeral director will usually help the family fill out the portion of the certificate that pertains to the decedent and family information, while the medical examiner will fill out the medical details.
NOTE: “If there’s no funeral, the responsibility of completing the death certificate typically falls on the medical examiner or coroner’s office. They gather information about the cause of death and other necessary details to issue the certificate.” — Tarek El Ali, CEO of Smart Insurance Agents.

Who can request certified copies of death certificates?

Except in states where a death record is a matter of public record (in which case some of the details are redacted), only certain individuals can request a decedent’s death certificate. The following people are typically allowed access to a deceased person’s death records:
  • Immediate family members, including a spouse, parent, child, or sibling
  • An attorney or legal representative
  • The executor or administrator of the estate
  • The funeral director
  • A government agency
Other individuals may be allowed to request a copy of the death record as well, such as business partners and non–family members who have a stake in or inheritance from the estate.
The vital statistics office will generally need some form of proof in order to honor a request for death records. For example, a spouse may need to show a marriage certificate, while a child may need to provide a birth certificate.

Why you may need a certified copy of a death certificate

Death records are required to close out a decedent’s estate and to send notice of the person’s passing to relevant government agencies, such as the Social Security Administration or the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. You will need a certified copy of a death certificate in order to take the following actions in regard to a decedent’s estate:
  • Access or close bank accounts or investments
  • Notify Social Security or Veterans Affairs
  • Submit a claim for a life insurance policy
  • Claim a pension or other retirement benefits
  • Transfer ownership of certain assets (such as a house or a car) to a new owner
  • Notify creditors
One of the most immediate needs for a death certificate is for family members to be able to claim life insurance money, says Matt Schmidt, owner and agent at Diabetes Life Solutions. Oftentimes, survivors of the deceased will need access to that money to pay for funeral expenses or simply to get by if the decedent was the major breadwinner.
“For most people, the main reason for needing a copy of the death certificate is for filing a life insurance death claim. In addition to filling out the specific claim form from the insurance company, you will need to submit a copy of the death certificate. The sooner you have a copy of a death certificate, the quicker the beneficiary will receive the proceeds from the life insurance policy.

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Pro Tip

Some people you will need to notify about a loved one’s death may only need to see a photocopy of the death record rather than a certified copy. These include utility companies, cell phone providers, and some banks and credit card companies.

Where to get a death certificate

Death records are on file at your state’s vital records office. There is usually a charge to obtain death certificates, and extra certified copies may require an additional fee. Charges will vary by state; you can find out the fees in your state through an online search.
If the death certificate has already been processed and you need it in a hurry, you may be able to pick it up in person — or if you’re not local, you can have it sent to you the next day (for an additional fee) via the United States Postal Service (USPS) or another overnight delivery service. Requests may also need to be accompanied by proof or supporting documentation of why you need the death records expedited to you.
The vital records office will typically accept a check or money order payable to the Department of Health or the Department of Public Health, depending on your state. If you order the death certificate online, you will most likely need to pay with a debit card or a major credit card.
The vital records office in your area may also offer walk-in services to obtain death certificates. You’ll usually need to provide supporting documentation that proves you are authorized to receive the full certified copy of a death certificate.

How long does it take to get a death certificate?

It usually takes two to four weeks to receive a copy of a death certificate from the vital records department in your state. If you use a funeral home, the funeral director may also be able to help you get a copy of the death record, although it may be more convenient to order multiple copies.
“Death certificates can usually be obtained through the vital records office of the state or county where the death occurred. It’s common to go through the state’s Department of Health or a similar agency. In some cases, funeral directors can also help facilitate the process, but you’ll still need to contact the relevant authorities to officially order the certificate,” explains Tarek El Ali, CEO of Smart Insurance Agents.

Why might death records be delayed?

It can take longer than two to four weeks to get a death certificate in specific situations. For example, if an autopsy needs to be performed, if there is an ongoing investigation, or if medical professionals are waiting on toxicology reports and other tests, it could take significantly longer than four weeks to complete the death certificate.
It may also take longer if the death certificate doesn’t have the proper signatures if it is missing certain details, or if it has inaccurate information recorded on it.


What if someone dies while in another country?

According to the U.S. Department of State, “When a U.S. citizen dies abroad, U.S. consular officers assist families in making arrangements with local authorities for preparation and disposition of the remains. Options available to a family depend upon local law and practice in the foreign country.”

Can I get a cheaper flight when someone dies?

“Some airlines offer bereavement fares to individuals who need to travel due to a death in the family. These fares are typically discounted, but the availability and terms vary among airlines. It’s important to contact the airline directly to inquire about this option and provide the necessary documentation to qualify for the fare,” says Ali.

Who pays for an autopsy when someone dies?

For deaths occurring outside of a hospital or under suspicious or uncertain circumstances, the state or coroner may order an autopsy. In that case, the county where the person died will cover the cost of the autopsy. However, if the family requests an autopsy, that is considered a private matter and the family will need to pay for the autopsy, which usually costs between $2,000 and $5,000.

How long does it take to find out a decedent’s cause of death?

A medical examiner may be able to determine the cause of death in a very short period of time, such as an hour or two. This is typical for cases in which the cause is straightforward, such as a gunshot wound to the head or a broken neck caused by a fall. However, it can take much longer — weeks or even months — if testing needs to be done to check for drugs, diseases, allergies, or poison, or if an autopsy is required.

Key Takeaways

  • A death certificate is a record of a person’s death that is formally filed with a state’s vital records office.
  • Death certificates are necessary to settle a decedent’s estate, access their financial accounts, notify government agencies of the death, and claim life insurance benefits.
  • Usually, only specific people can request a deceased person’s death records from the vital records office, including immediate family members, the administrator or attorney for the estate, and government agencies.
  • You can obtain copies of a death certificate from your state’s vital records department and pay for it in person, by mail, or online by check, money order, debit card, or major credit card.

SuperMoney may receive compensation from some or all of the companies featured, and the order of results are influenced by advertising bids, with exception for mortgage and home lending related products. Learn more

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