Losing a loved one can be incredibly difficult. Unfortunately, it can be even more challenging if you’re the one who has to settle your loved one’s estate, close accounts or tie up any financial loose ends. That’s because you might have a lengthy to-do list to tackle while you’re grieving, which may include helping to sort out your loved one's financial affairs.
One of the first things you’ll likely need to do is get certified copies of your loved one’s death certificate. Here’s what you need to know about the process and why you will need this document.
What is a death certificate?
A death certificate is a government-issued legal document that provides proof of death. Typically, it’s prepared by a funeral director, who must gather information about the person who died and get certification of the cause of death from a physician, coroner or medical examiner. The funeral director then files the death certificate with the county or state vital records office. State laws usually require that a death certificate be filed within two to 10 days after a death.
A death certificate includes personal information about the deceased and the cause of death. Usually, it includes the following details:
- Full name of the deceased
- Deceased’s race, sex, education level, occupation
- Social Security number
- Date and place of birth
- Parents’ names
- Date, place and time of death
- Method of disposition (burial, cremation, etc.)
- Cause of death
Why you need copies of a death certificate
A certified copy of the death certificate will be necessary to prove your loved one’s death for a variety of financial and legal transactions. Key reasons you’ll need certified copies include the following:
- To file a claim for life insurance benefits
- To begin probate proceedings to settle the estate
- To claim pension benefits
- To close or transfer ownership of the deceased’s financial accounts
- To transfer ownership of the deceased’s property
- To stop benefit payments your loved one received from the Social Security Administration, Medicare or Medicaid and any other government agencies or to claim benefits you’re entitled to as a survivor
You’ll likely need several certified copies if you are the executor of your loved one’s estate or are overseeing his or her financial affairs. If you just need a death certificate for informational rather than legal use, you can get an uncertified copy.
Who can order copies of a death certificate?
The rules regarding who can apply for a death certificate vary from state to state. Some states allow only immediate family members—such as a spouse, parent, sibling or child—to get certified copies. Others allow extended family members, ex-spouses, legal representatives of the deceased’s estate and individuals who can demonstrate a financial interest in the deceased’s estate to apply for a death certificate. Your state’s office of vital statistics should spell out who is eligible to apply for a death certificate on its website.
How to get copies
You have a few options when it comes to getting a death certificate. Typically, you will have to pay a fee for each certified copy you order. However, if you order more than one copy, the additional copies will be discounted. Also, be aware that requests for copies can take several business days or even weeks to process.
From the funeral home: You can ask the funeral home or mortuary that is handling the arrangements for your loved one to get certified copies of the death certificate for you.
From VitalChek: This online service is an official provider of death certificates for hundreds of government agencies throughout the U.S. Simply visit VitalChek.com, select the state where the death certificate was issued and provide the information required by the state to process your request. The cost ranges from $10 to $79.50, depending on the state—plus processing and shipping fees.
From the local or state vital records office: You can apply for a death certificate from the state where your loved one died. State vital records offices typically offer the option to apply online (usually through VitalChek), by mail, phone or in person. However, many states are not offering walk-in services because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And some states require that applications that are mailed must be signed in front of a notary public. You’ll also need to provide information about the deceased—such as full legal name, sex, date of death, date of birth, county of death and Social Security number.
The links below are for the vital records office in each state.
California: How to get a death certificate in California
Connecticut: How to get a death certificate in Connecticut
District of Columbia: How to get a death certificate in District of Columbia
Louisiana: How to get a death certificate in Louisiana
Massachusetts: How to get a death certificate in Massachusetts
Minnesota: How to get a death certificate in Minnesota
Mississippi: How to get a death certificate in Mississippi
New Hampshire: How to get a death certificate in New Hampshire
New Jersey: How to get a death certificate in New Jersey
New Mexico: How to get a death certificate in New Mexico
North Carolina: How to get a death certificate in North Carolina
North Dakota: How to get a death certificate in North Dakota
Pennsylvania: How to get a death certificate in Pennsylvania
Rhode Island: How to get a death certificate in Rhode Island
South Carolina: How to get a death certificate in South Carolina
South Dakota: How to get a death certificate in South Dakota
Tennessee: How to get a death certificate in Tennessee
Washington: How to get a death certificate in Washington
West Virginia: How to get a death certificate in West Virginia
Wisconsin: How to get a death certificate in Wisconsin