A certified copy of the death certificate is required in order to complete many of the steps involved in probate, small estate administration, and trust administration. Depending on the size of the estate, several certified copies of the certificate may be needed.
If you are still grieving or very emotional regarding your loss, you may want a close friend or relative with you when you obtain the death certificate. Reading a death certificate can be very upsetting for loved ones, even after a substantial amount of time has passed.
How to Obtain a Death Certificate
Each state has its own procedures for releasing death certificates. For example, some states restrict the release of death certificates to immediate family members only while other states treat death certificates as public records that may be obtained simply by paying the requisite fee, regardless of whether there is any relationship to the deceased. Some states release death certificates to persons other than immediate family members and representatives of the estate, but redact certain information.
In states that restrict the release of death certificates, a surviving spouse, domestic partner, parent, adult child, or adult grandchild of the deceased person, as well as the executor or attorney representing the decedentís estate, can typically obtain a certified copy. In states that restrict the release of death certificates, you may be required to provide proof of your relationship to the deceased person to obtain a copy.
If you arranged the funeral services, cremation or burial, the funeral director may provide you copies of the death certificate as part of the final arrangements. Otherwise, contact the vital records office or health department of the county in which death occurred. Most county offices of vital statistics provide instructions online about how to obtain a death certificate.
How a Death Certificate is Used in Estate Administration
The executor or personal representative of an estate usually needs several certified copies of the death certificate to file claims for benefits, compensation, and payments owed to the deceased and transfer title to property as part of estate administration. For example, a certified copy of the death certificate may be required to:
claim death benefits under a life insurance policy or annuity; claim Veteranís, Social Security, pension, and retirement plan benefits; obtain the decedentís final paycheck and any employee benefits that may be owed; change title to accounts with financial institutions, such as bank accounts, brokerage accounts, retirement accounts, and safe deposit boxes; transfer title to real estate; transfer title to stocks, bonds, and other securities; transfer title to vehicles and other personal property; and provide verification of death to mortgage lenders, banks, credit card companies, and other creditors.
What Type of Information is on a Death Certificate?
The exact form of the death certificate varies from state to state. A death certificate typically includes the following types of information about the decedent: full name, any aliases, social security number, date of birth, date of death, race, gender, marital status, address of principal residence, state or country of birth, military service, highest level of education attained, occupation, full name of spouse, full name of both parents, state of each parent's birth, date of disposition of remains, place of disposition of remains, manner of disposition of remains, name of funeral home or mortuary, signature of embalmer, place of death, immediate cause of death and other significant conditions contributing to death, length of last illness, whether decedentís death was reported to the coroner, whether an autopsy was performed, whether the deceased person was pregnant, name and address of the attending physician, signature and license number of the person certifying the death certificate, whether the deceased person was injured at work and the date of such injury, whether the manner of death was from natural causes or the result of a homicide, suicide, accident, undetermined or under investigation, date the death certificate was issued, county in which death certificate was issued, and address of vital records office.
The information listed on a death certificate is very comprehensive and may contain sensitive details about the deceased personís medical condition and manner of death. It also contains personal data about the decedent which could be used to gain access to financial records and accounts. Therefore, death certificates should be kept in a storage safe, a locked metal file cabinet or another secure method of storage. While a death certificate is necessary for many steps in the administration of an estate or trust, this type of document is also subject to misuse in the wrong hands.
See also Executor Checklist and Probate an Estate.