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Why is a Death Certificate Important to Have?

by Viki Kind, End-of-Life Expert
February 12, 2016

Question: What does certificate of death mean and why is it important to have that?

Answer: The death certificate is a legal document that is required by the government to keep track of who has died.  It gives information about the person’s cause of death as well as the person’s personal information such as date and place of birth, names of the person’s parents, etc. The doctor fills in his/her part and then you will be asked to answer the other questions about your loved one whose has died.  You might want to look at a typical death certificate to make sure you can answer all the questions.  (Your states’ form might be a little different.)

The death certificate is used for closing the person’s bank accounts, filing court papers regarding the person’s will, letting the Social Security and IRS know about the death, filing for other death benefits such as life insurance, and lots of other legal and financial reasons.  Although you might think you should only need one copy of the death certificate, you will probably need to have more of them since some banks, insurance companies, pension benefits, etc. need a “certified” copy instead of a photocopy of the original.  I think I ended up needing 8 death certificates when I took care of my dad’s estate after he died.  But everyone is different and you might need more or less than I did. What I did was I contacted each place that my dad did business with and asked what I needed to send them to take care of my dad’s accounts.  I wrote down what I needed to send them and the address of the department which handled the deaths of their customers.  Once I had done this, I ordered the right amount of death certificates.  (You don’t want to order too many extra because each one costs money.)

To get information about the requirements of your state, you can google the name of your state and the words “death certificate.”  You can also go to your town’s city hall and talk to their death certificate department.  PBS did is a great overview about this issue.  If you have legal questions, you should talk to an estate planning attorney or elder law attorney.

Viki Kind is a clinical bioethicist, professional speaker, and hospice volunteer. Her book, The Caregiver’s Path to Compassionate Decision Making: Making Choices For Those Who Can't,” guides families and professionals through the difficult process of advocating for those who can no longer speak for themselves. She has recently launched a DVD that includes a template to create a quality-of-life statement.

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