The first week after someone passes away is a nonstop blur of condolences, grief, and to-dos — one of which is signing, retrieving, and distributing death certificates for any number of reasons.
This is just one part of the process known as estate settlement, which you will become closely familiar with over the following months.
Many people and organizations, for a variety of reasons, will need to see a death certificate during probate, which is a process that happens within estate settlement and is the official closing of someone’s financial life in the eyes of the state.
If you are new to probate and still wrapping your head around it, I highly recommend reading this article for clarity on everything you’re responsible for: What is Probate? A Beginner’s Guide + Timeline.
What’s the Difference Between a Copy and an Original Death Certificate?
Before we name specifics, not everyone needs a stamped original death certificate. Many businesses and organizations can get by just fine with a copy, which is cheaper and easier to acquire.
Technically any version of the death certificate outside of the original is a copy, but you can get stamped versions that are recognized by the state as a legal document.
Photocopies and faxed documents without the stamp are a less official version and will be refused by some people.
It’s similar to how artists release signed, certified “prints”, and then a guy on the street prints out the painting and frames it. They may look the same, but they aren’t.
When Do You Need Original (Certified) Death Certificates?
The higher chance and impact of fraud, the more likely you will need an original, government-stamped death certificate as opposed to simply a copy.
The things you will most likely need an original death certificate for include:
- When filing federal, state, and estate taxes on behalf of the estate during probate.
- When attempting to transfer or alter title of real estate, vehicles, boats, or any other property.
- To acquire VA benefits such as funeral assistance and VA loans for surviving spouses.
- When collecting life and health insurance payouts.
- To withdraw retirement account funds including 401ks, pensions, and IRAs.
- To withdraw from international or out-of-state accounts of any sort.
- When trying to move the remains of the individual.
- When collecting any other high-value accounts or assets including stocks or bonds.
That means the people who need original death certificates include:
- The IRS
- The VA
- Real estate or real property attorneys when transferring tile
- Life insurance companies
- Health insurance companies
- Some brokers and banks as requested
- Cemeteries or funeral homes as requested
And any other time someone happens to request a certified copy.
Who Can You Give Copies of Death Certificates to Instead?
Again, not everyone needs a stamped version. Here’s who you can get by giving a photocopy or fax to unless they specifically request otherwise:
- The DMV
- Utility companies
- Credit card companies
- Rentals including cars and apartments
- The deceased’s employer
- Their main bank
- Cell phone providers
- Credit bureaus
Where Can You Get Original Death Certificates?
After a death is declared, one of the first things you do is work with a licensed funeral director, coroner, and/or medical professional to officially declare a death and sign the U.S. Standard Certificate of Death.
Then you are usually given a certificate by the funeral home or director you’re working with.
Since this tends to happen in hospice or a hospital, staff will be able to walk you through the process.
If you don’t walk away with one, seek out a funeral director. A funeral director is well-versed in this world and should be able to help you get you as many copies as you need & answer any questions you may have. It’s their job, after all.
And if for whatever reason they are charging a lot to do this or point you elsewhere, you can also get them from the county vital records office (or equivalent) in the town where the decedent permanently resided (domiciled).
This is usually a part of the local Department of Health, so if you’re having trouble finding the vital records office, go there.
You can also google the name of the county or town where the person passed + death certificate request”.
For example, googling “Nashville death certificate request” has the nashville.gov vital records office as the first result.
This page has the cost, options for getting them, and all the other information you need.
How Many Original Death Certificates Should You Request?
It depends on the size and complexity of the estate, but we recommend starting off by requesting around 10 original death certificates.
Getting this many should reduce the chances of you having to go back to the vital record office and hopefully save you some time.
For example, if you know the deceased had a small estate, so only a few bank accounts and things, then you can probably get by with around 8-10, but if they had multiple houses in multiple jurisdictions and a sea of assets, it’s probably smarter to get even more than 10.
Processing requests for certificates, especially post-pandemic, can be slow — avoid requesting by mail for the fastest results. And ideally swing by the office directly to get them faster. Just call the office and ask what they recommend if you’re pressed for time.
How Much Do Original Death Certificates Cost?
You can request as many as you want, but different states charge different amounts. The first one is generally a bit more and then the subsequent ones are cheaper.
For example, in Texas the first one is $21, but all following ones are $4 each*.
If you can’t find it with a simple google search, call your local probate clerk for help.
For example, in Georgia, you request them from the Department of Public Health and:
- You can request them online, by mail, or in-person
- Certified death certificates are only available to “requestors having a direct and tangible interest to the decedent.”
- Processing takes 8-10 weeks for all requests.
Where to go from here
Remember: this is just one step in what will be a sea of paperwork over the next few months. From planning the funeral, to writing obituaries, to finishing probate as the executor, anything you can do to have on hand what you need helps. So even if it costs a bit more upfront, go ahead and get a few extra.
That being said, know that doing all of this for a loved one is in its own way another act of final kindness and love for that person. You’re cleaning up after them, one last time. Try and find the beauty in it if you can.