Executors: Ordering Certified Death Certificates

If you’re the executor or administrator of an estate, you’re going to need copies of the deceased person’s death certificate.

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law

Sooner or later, if you're the executor or administrator of an estate, you're going to need copies of the deceased person's death certificate. Generally, you'll need official or "certified" copies of the document.

What Is a Death Certificate?

A death certificate is official evidence of a person's death, like a birth certificate is proof of one's birth. It is signed by the physician who verifies the death and is issued by the county in which the person died.

Each state has its own form, but the certificates typically include:

  • Address
  • Date, place, and time of death
  • Birth date and birthplace
  • Names and birthplaces of deceased person's mother and father
  • Veteran's discharge or claim number
  • Education
  • Marital status and name of surviving spouse, if any

Other information, such as the cause of death and the person's Social Security number, may not be included in order to protect the family's privacy and to deter identify theft. In Florida, for example, the cause of death is confidential for 50 years, after which it becomes a matter of public record. Only certain relatives, or people inheriting from the estate, can request death certificates that include the cause of death.

Why You'll Need Certified Copies

You'll need a certified death certificate any time you need to provide proof of the death—which means any time you want to collect property that belonged to the deceased person or claim a benefit that results from the death. Some examples:

  • Claiming Social Security survivor's benefits
  • Collecting life insurance proceeds
  • Claiming veteran's benefits
  • Opening a probate court proceeding
  • Collecting property with a small estate affidavit
  • Transferring joint tenancy property into the name of the surviving owner
  • Converting the deceased person's IRA into an inherited IRA
  • Claiming the assets in a payable-on-death bank account

How to Get Death Certificates

The easiest way to get certified copies of the death certificate is to ask the funeral director who handles the burial or cremation arrangements to get them for you. Funeral homes routinely provide this service and include the cost in their bill.

For most people, it's a good idea to get about a dozen certified copies from the mortuary. If you need more copies later, you'll have to submit formal written requests to the county or state vital records agency. (You can't save money by buying one certified copy and then making your own photocopies—your copies won't have the official embossed government seal and won't be accepted.)

If you do need to order copies from a government agency, you will probably be able to get them from either county officials in the county where the person died or the state vital records agency. The county is likely to have the documents months before the state does, so try there first. You may need to go to the county clerk, the county registrar, or the health department, depending on how your county has organized its offices. Expect to make a few phone calls—or just search online for, for example, "Cook County death certificates"—to find out where to make your request. You'll probably be able to start the process by mail or phone; larger counties also have online forms to submit.

In most states, only certain people are entitled to buy certified death certificates: close relatives, the executor of the estate, or someone who is inheriting from the deceased person. So when you submit your request form, you may need to show photo ID (or include a copy of it, if you don't order in person) to prove your identity.

Most places charge from $5 to $30 per certificate. Commonly, if you order several copies at once, the first one is more expensive by a dollar or two. If you don't pick up the certificates, you'll also have to pay a postage fee.

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