How to Get a Death Certificate (and What You’ll Need It For)

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When someone dies, their death must be recorded with local or state authorities within a few days. The way that this is done is through a death certificate: an official, government-issued document that states the date, time, location, and cause of death, as well as other personal important information about the deceased like their Social Security number, marital status, and surviving spouse’s name (if applicable).

Why do I need a death certificate?

A death certificate serves as legal proof of death. If a loved one dies, you’ll need a death certificate for many reasons, including:

Who completes a death certificate?

A death certificate is typically completed by two parties: a medical certifier, like a physician, coroner, or medical examiner; and a licensed funeral director or burial agent. The medical certifier is responsible for identifying the cause and time of death as well the identity of the deceased, while the funeral director certifies that the body was properly handled.

The funeral director then files the death certificate with the county health department in your state. While the timeline for filing varies from state to state, typically it must be filed within 72 hours of death.

How can I obtain copies?

The easiest way to get a death certificate is to order them from the funeral home, if you’re using one. But you can also request them directly from the county’s or state’s department of vital records. Depending on the state the deceased person lived in, you may also be able to get a death certificate through VitalChek, a website that is an official, government-authorized service that allows U.S. citizens to order certified vital records online. VitalChek does charge a processing fee on all purchases, ranging from $5 to $15 per order. Get your state’s death certificate forms, instructions, and online or VitalChek ordering links with our resource finder:

Whether you make the request online or in person at the state or county office, you’ll have to pay for each copy of the death certificate you order. Fees are typically $10 to $25 for the first copy, and sometimes slightly less for additional copies.

In many states, there are two types of death certificate: informational or certified copies. Informational certificates are available to anyone who requests them, and are mostly used for personal records or genealogy purposes. Certified copies are available only to members of the deceased’s immediate family, executor of the estate, or someone who can show a direct financial interest in the deceased’s estate. When it comes to handling financial, legal, or burial affairs, you’ll want to request a certified copy.

How many copies should I get?

To cover your bases when handling a loved one’s affairs, you’ll probably need eight to 10 certified copies of their death certificate, but in some cases you may want as many as 20. That’s because while some institutions will accept a photocopy of the certificate, most will request an original certified certificate before allowing you to access or manage accounts.

Institutions that may accept a copy

Always check in advance to see if a photocopy of the death certificate is acceptable.

  • Local banks
  • Credit card issuers
  • Utility and phone companies

Institutions that generally request an original certified death certificate

  • Brokerage firms for 401Ks, IRAs, and other investments
  • Pension providers
  • Internal Revenue Service
  • Department of Veterans Affairs for military benefits
  • Life insurance and burial insurance companies
  • Out-of-state banks
  • Property transfer offices
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