What is a Death Certificate?

Death Certifcate

A death certificate is a government-issued legal document that states the cause, time, and location of death, as well as other personal information of the decedent. Of all of the documentation pertaining to the life of an individual, the death certificate is arguably the most important. A death certificate remains the only legal proof that a person has died and serves myriad purposes, many of which are often overlooked.

While states are permitted to offer their own variations of a death certificate, the most common form is the U.S. Standard Death Certificate, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which hopes that in time all states will begin to use the same, standard version. This will help streamline data tremendously when it comes to global health matters.

Who Needs a Death Certificate?

The death certificate is used by the state for various purposes. Routinely, they are used for legal reasons including the payment of life insurance claims and pension benefits, and settling a decedent’s estate. In the event that a widow or widower chooses to remarry, a death certificate may be required in order to prove that their previous spouse has died. If government officials have reason to suspect foul play in the death of an individual, the death certificate becomes critical to any investigation. Lastly, the legal filing of a death certificate by the coroner is required to secure a burial or cremation permit for the remains of the decedent.

How to Get a Death Certificate

Death certificates can be ordered through the funeral home that handles the funeral and burial services of the decedent. They may also be requested through the state government website in which the person died. Alternatively, third party companies offer services for getting vital records. If a third party handles the request, the requestor is charged an additional fee on top of what the state charges.

The criteria required for a person to get a death certificate varies by state. In some states, death certificates are considered public domain. Generally, only family members who can provide proof of their relationship to the decedent may receive a copy of the death certificate. The same is true for copies being requested by legal counsel on behalf of a family member; a letter stating whom they are representing and how they are related to the person named on the death certificate is required.

Certified copies (sometimes called originals) are required for legal purposes and entities like insurance companies, financial, and legal institutions. Uncertified copies (sometimes called simply copies) are sufficient for service providers, or other businesses when required. It is typically the case that up to five originals and a dozen copies of a death certificate are sufficient to fully settle the decedent’s estate.

Death Certificates and Public Health

Another purpose served by death certificates is the logging of data regarding public health. The information included on a death certificate helps track the overall health and life expectancy of our modern society as well as how that information changes over time. This data set helps inform public health policy and how it must evolve depending on which illnesses prove to be the leading causes of death.

It is fascinating that a single document produced after a person’s death could play so many roles in personal, financial, public health, and global health matters.


Understanding the importance of the death certificate is vital in post-death logistics. Every entity the decedent had a financial relationship with will have its own death certificate procedure, from requiring a certified copy (for most legal and financial institutions), to an uncertified copy (for some non-legal service providers), to none at all.

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Kubloss, Inc. (dba EstateGrid) has placed the information on this website as a service to the general public. It is not intended as legal, financial, or health advice or as a substitute for the particularized advice of a qualified professional. It is provided as is without warranty of any kind, either express or implied, including but not limited to, the implied warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, or non‐infringement.