Death Records: Why Documenting Death Is Essential, and How These Records May Be Crucial in a People Search
Disclaimer: The below is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.
Among all records pertaining to an individual, death records may be the most important. Once found, they may inform an interested party about the life of the deceased, and may lead to other records related to this person. Finding death records and collecting information about a deceased individual can be tricky, but may be essential in a people search.
What are death records, and are they public records?
Death records, which are considered to be public records, are part of the collection of vital records (which include birth and marriage records, for example). In fact, by the mid-1930s, all states were collecting mortality data.
Essentially, there are two types of death records: an official death certificate and death indexes.
An official death certificate is a document that is issued at the time of one’s death and includes more sensitive information about the deceased. This may include the following:
- The deceased’s full name;
- A cause of death and other details about the illness;
- The date, time, and location of death;
- A full or partial Social Security Number;
- Marital status of the deceased at time of death and their spouse’s name, if applicable;
- Parents’ names and birthplaces;
- Education and occupation;
- Veteran’s claim or discharge number, if applicable;
- Maiden names, if applicable;
- Religious affiliation;
- Date and place of birth;
- Date and place of burial; and
- Other relevant information that may be available.
Some details may be missing on some death certificates, to the extent that much of this information is often provided solely by a relative of the deceased, who is called the informant, who may not possess or elect to provide additional details.
Official death records are generally completed by a funeral home, cremation service provider, or other agency or person charged with the deceased person's remains. They must be signed by a medical professional such as a doctor, medical examiner, or coroner.
On the other hand, death indexes may also include basic information about the deceased, but often do not include sensitive details about them.
How do you get a death certificate?
As with most vital records, the ability to obtain death records depends on the state or other local jurisdiction laws. Generally, death indexes are easier to obtain than death certificates, and can be downloaded from the internet at no cost.
Death certificates, however, may be more difficult to obtain.
Because of the information included on certificates is sensitive, a state may place a restriction on who can access them and when. Generally, soon after the death of an individual and after the completion of the death certificate, this document is transferred to the local county’s vital statistics office. The office can issue certified copies of the death certificate to the loved ones of the deceased for a fee (the amount of which depends on the state).
Though death records are generally considered to be public records, some states don’t allow the public to obtain copies of vital records. In these states, only the following people may gain access to a death certificate:
- A spouse or immediate family member.
- Attorney representing an estate, family members, or persons with a legal interest.
- The executor of the estate.
- Genealogical researcher.
- Anyone with a close familial or financial relationship.
If you are a relative of the deceased and would like to obtain a death certificate, you may need to provide proof of this by showing a birth or marriage certificate. An attorney may need to provide court orders or other documents proving that you have a legal or financial interest in obtaining a death certificate if you are not a relative of the deceased.
More and more states are passing laws limiting access to death records to prevent identity theft and fraud. However, you may have the option to request an “informational” copy, in which personal and sensitive information has been removed.
This restriction of access generally doesn’t last forever: it expires within 50 to 100 years, depending on the state. After the amount of time dictated by the state, anyone may be able to obtain copies of anyone’s death certificate.
Requesting a copy of a death certificate
If allowed access to a death certificate, generally, you may be able to request a copy of the document by one of three ways: online, in person, or by mail. You may be able to order a copy of the death certificate from the state agency, whereas others may direct you to the county or city where the records are kept. Regardless of the method you choose, you may need to provide proof of your relationship to the deceased as well as their information, such as their name, date of death, and city where the death occurred.
If you are still unsure of how to obtain copies of a death certificate, simply contact your state's vital records office or visit the courthouse of the county in which your loved one passed away.
You may also be able to access certified copies of death certificates online through third-party services if the state allows that third party agency to access death records.
Why are certified copies of a death certificate necessary to have?
It is generally advised that you have several copies of a loved one’s death certificate for your records, as they may be useful in a number of situations, such as settling issues with their will.
A death certificate is, in fact, the only legal proof that someone has died. Once a death certificate is completed, the state in which the deceased lived stops issuing social security payments, pensions and other benefits. The family of the deceased or the executor of the deceased’s estate uses the death certificate to settle the affairs of the deceased.
Certified copies of a death certificate may be necessary to obtain a permit for burial or cremation. It is also likely necessary in order to distribute the deceased person’s property to their inheritors.
This official document may also become necessary when:
- Settling life-insurance policies, insured loans, union benefits, stocks and bonds, and credit card or credit union debts.
- Handling vehicle-related matters, such as transferring vehicle titles and changing registration names.
- Receiving survivor benefits such as Social Security payments.
- Gaining access to the deceased’s bank accounts.
Finally, because death records are the final records created for any individual, they are most likely a valuable source to provide accurate information about the deceased and their family.
This makes death certificates beneficial for genealogical research, or simply for building a family tree.
Errors in death certificates and changing information in death records
Like most records, death records are subject to human error. Most often, the error is made when ascribing the cause of death. In many cases, the physician will attribute a person’s death to “cardiac arrest” if they couldn’t determine the true cause of death.
An autopsy requested by the deceased’s family may reveal that the cause of death was incorrectly listed on a death certificate. In such a case, getting that information amended on the official document may take months, even years. In some cases, the error may not even be recorded.
Should any identifying information about the deceased be incorrect, you may be be able to file paperwork to initiate the change upon providing evidence of the error. If an error such as an incorrect date, misspelled name, or an inaccurate veteran status, is not corrected, death insurance claims may be affected. The process to amend a death certificate varies state-by-state.
Tips for investigating death records
Finding a death certificate may be easy when searching for that of a loved one. However, with limited information, you may need to investigate other sources.
Perhaps the two most important pieces of information when searching for a death certificate is the individual’s name and the state in which they died.
With this information, a number of other places and resources may prove to be useful in providing additional information about a person’s life and death, including key information such as the date and the location of the person’s burial.
- Records belonging to houses of worhsip or other religious institutions.
- Family Bibles or other religious documents.
- Insurance records
- Cemetery records
- Funeral home records
- Newspaper obituaries
- Online genealogy websites
- State archives
- City and County civil registrations
If seeking details about the death of an ancestor in order to subsequently obtain their death certificate, there may be some additional steps you need to find out additional details.
- Try searching for the vital records of other known family members. For example, the information found in the records of parents or siblings may provide helpful details that may lead to finding your ancestor’s record.
- If you can’t find the death records of a loved one, expand your search to areas where your ancestor lived — newspapers in the area may have run an obituary for that individual.
- The death certificate isn’t the only document that can shed light on the circumstances surrounding a person’s death: use the resources listed above (libraries, state archives, etc…) to put together the pieces of the puzzle.
- Use census records and city directories: once an individual’s data disappears from these records, you may have some evidence that they died around this time.
- Court records, such as wills, can help you estimate death dates.
How death records may help you in a people search
Death records may be helpful in a people search. If you know that an individual has died but are trying to find additional information about them, it is generally recommended that you start your search with death records first. Death records are the most recent official records pertaining to an individual and the information was likely supplied by an informant (likely a family member). This means that they are most likely to have the most accurate information. If you have a birth certificate or a copy of another official document, you may be able to cross-reference information found on both sets records. Finally, because a death certificate has so much identifying information, it may be a source for information for details like a birth place, date of birth, and the names of the deceased’s parents and spouse.