Death Certificates: Learn More about Death Certificates in the United States
What is a Death Certificate?
A death certificate is considered to be one of the three vital records, the other two are birth and marriage certificates. Death certificates can be one of two documents that prove someone has passed on. The first is issued by a medical practitioner, the second is issued by a government authority, usually a census-keeping body. Whenever someone dies, the death must be registered with the local records office within a short amount of time, usually 3-10 days of the death, the records office can then subsequently issue official copies of the death certificate to relevant parties.
In almost all cases the preparation of the death certificate is included in the services offered by funeral homes, cremation organizations or other persons in charge of the deceased’s remains. The process involves gathering personal information, and the signature of someone who can declare death, those being a doctor, medical examiner, or coroner.
The purpose of a death certificate is multi-fold. A death certificate issued by a medical practitioner can be used to prove the cause of death, to add information to add to public health statistics, or to prove death in the case of a will, inheritance or life insurance claim. In order for government authorities to issue a death certificate, a medical practitioner's death certificate needs to be shown. Throughout the article, we will refer to the government-issued certificate.
Throughout history, official documentation of death was traditionally kept by local churches or religious institutions, the first record of a secular court keeping death records was in the US in the 17th century. In the US, a standard form of death certification has been in practice since 1910 to keep everything uniform. The very first time where lists of dead were kept was in the wake of the plagues in Europe. After the black plague in which more than a third of Europe died some countries realized the need to keep track of the deaths in the case of a massive disease that killed a lot of population. England was the first country to implement this in the form of Bills of Mortality: weekly lists of the plague dead, broken down by parish. The earliest known bill is thought to date from 1512.
What is in a Death Certificate?
The information included on a death certificate can vary from state to state but generally includes:
- Full name
- Birthdate and birthplace
- Father’s name and birthplace
- Mother’s name and birthplace
- Social Security number
- Veteran’s discharge or claim number (if relevant)
- Marital status and name of spouse (if relevant)
- Date, place, and time of death
- Cause of death
Are Death Certificates Public Record?
While death certificates are generally a matter of public record, it does depend on the state where the death occurred. In Florida for example, death records are public, but some information such as the cause of death is not public until 50 years after death unless you are an immediate family member. In Illinois, only an immediate family member or someone dealing with the estate can access the records. You need to check the specific laws of each state in order to know if the records are public.
Official vs. Unofficial Death Certificates
When dealing with death certificates you both official (authorized) and unofficial death certificates. Official certificates can be used in a legal capacity to obtain death benefits, claim insurance policies, notify social security and other services. Unofficial certificates are merely for informational purposes.
An official certificate can only be issued to:
- A parent or legal guardian of the deceased
- A member of the government or law enforcement who is conducting official sanctioned business related to the deceased
- A child, grandparent, grandchild, sibling, spouse or domestic partner of the registrant
- A lawyer representing the deceased’s estate
- A funeral home representative who is acting on behalf of the family
One can order authorized official death certificates through a third party or a governmental records office. Anyone can order an informational copy of a death certificate through the same channels.
How to Order Death Certificates
Anyone can order a death certificate by ordering it from the relevant local office or through a third-party website.
A helpful way to find the local authority that issues the certificates is through the Center for Disease Control Website, here you can find a directory of all the states and where to order from. Another website where you can order death certificates from most states is Vitalchek.
The fees to order a death certificate vary depending on the state or county, but you can expect to pay between 10 and 25 dollars per copy. Keep in mind that you will need the basic information of the deceased to order the certificate. This includes the full name, date of death, location of death and other information to identify the deceased. Some states will ask you to prove your relationship to the deceased if they only allow relatives to order the death certificate.
Archived Death Records
In the case you need to access death records from before a time when the local record office starting keeping track of records, it is a lot more difficult task, but it is still possible to find. A good place to begin your search should begin the US National Archive, which has a number of places where you can start searching including soldiers who died while serving overseas, foreign deaths and more.
It is very important to know the date of death and place of death to locate the files, once you have this information, you can run a Google search of the year of death and place of death with records. For example “1860 New York death records” will turn up results for death indexes and records from that time period.
Another fast and easy way to find public death records is by using a site that aggregates millions of public records and makes them simple to search.
Run a death record search with GoLookUp.