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How Many Death Certificates Do I Need?

When a loved one dies it can be an especially challenging time. Emotions are high, funeral services are being decided, and family/friends must be notified. Along with the immediate grief related things, there are many practical responsibilities loved ones face after a death. One of those responsibilities, that will lead to being able to handle others, is obtaining a death certificate.

The Purpose of Death Certificates

In order to know how many death certificates you will need, their purpose must be understood.  A death certificate is a legal record containing a person’s basic details and cause of death.  It is created by a funeral professional, amended by the deceased’s primary care provider, certified as truthful, and filed as an official record of the death with the government.  It is then held on file with the local registrar’s office (or vital records office) indefinitely for any future use.  A death certificate serves several important functions:

  1. Record of death:  The death certificate serves as a legal record confirming the facts and details of a person’s death.  Often it is required in order to settle someone’s estate, file insurance claims, and handle any retirement or survivor’s benefits.
  2. Funeral arrangements:  Final disposition, what happens to your body after you die (i.e. terramation, cremation, alkaline hydrolysis, or burial) can only happen once local authorities issue a permit giving permission.  This permit is created once the death certificate is officially filed.
  3. Covering the bases:  A death certificate serves as an official accounting of someone’s death and is used to protect against identity theft, to update records on common causes of death, and serve as part of the genealogical records of families.


How Many Death Certificates Do You Need?

Your specific circumstances will determine the number of death certificates you need.  A good general guideline to think about is this:  if you want money (or something legally binding) from someone, then you need a certified copy of the death certificate.  Various institutions, such as financial ones, and organizations (that may pay out benefits to survivors) will want a death certificate to verify your loved one’s identity, their passing, and your relation to them before they will pay out or settle anything.  Things to think about when determining the quantity are as follows:

  1. For the Here and Now:  In most cases, you will want at least two copies of the death certificate.  One for immediate needs, such as dealing with the bank, and one to keep on hand when something unexpected comes up.  This second, reserve copy will give you some peace of mind in the event you suddenly find yourself needing a death certificate.
  2. Support from Funeral Home:  Remember that the funeral home is there to help you.  Your funeral director will be able to answer questions, give you suggestions based on what you tell them of your loved one’s life/holdings, and help you get the death certificates you need.  They can also guide you on what entities may require death certificates and which ones you might not need to worry so much about. They are a great resource and will be the ones completing the death certificate on your behalf.  
  3. Probate/Estate:  If your loved one had assets in their name, such as land, property, automobiles/boats, or stocks/investments, you will need death certificates to establish your legal rights to those things and authority over their handling.  This is especially important if your loved one’s estate is going through probate (establishing the validity of a will).
  4. Life Insurance:  Insurance companies may also require a certified copy of the death certificate in order to process and pay out claims.  Each insurance company has different requirements and contacting them directly is the best way to make sure you have everything you need for your claim.
  5. Government Agencies:  In most cases, the funeral home will contact the Social Security Administration, Medicare, and Medicaid on your behalf to notify them of your loved one’s death.  Agencies like the Department of Veterans Affairs or the Internal Revenue Service are not notified by the funeral home and may require a certified copy of the death certificate for their records.  It is always advised to check with agencies directly to know their requirements.
  6. Open Accounts:  Banks, investment companies, and mortgage companies will all need a death certificate for their records in order to close or transfer accounts.  A good rule is that if an institution is going to give you money, they will want a death certificate.
  7. Property/Vehicles:  Transferring titles or real estate or vehicles (automotive or boat) will require a death certificate.  This is equally true if you intend to sell a loved one’s property as it will be required in order to prove your ability as next of kin to complete the sale.

It’s hard to know exactly how many death certificates you might need to handle a loved one’s affairs after they die.  The general “rules” to follow when deciding the quantity are:  listen to your funeral director’s advice, and err on the conservative side.  You can always obtain more death certificates but you can not be refunded for certificates you do not end up using.

Remember to communicate clearly with those around you (your family members and your funeral director) about the things for which you might need a death certificate.  They are there to help you.  When in doubt, obtain at least two, one for your records (and future use) and one for the bank.  Having all of your ducks in a row, your paperwork in order, will ensure that this transitioning time after a death goes as smoothly as possible.

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