Counties throughout the U.S. have kept death records on people for more than a century. Death records aren't as easily available as some other public records, but they're still accessible if you search for them the right way.
Death certificates are the most common form of death records. They contain several vital pieces of information about the deceased person, including the full name, Social Security Number, gender, date of birth, birthplace, service in the Armed Forces (if any), place of death, age at time of death, surviving spouse (if any), residence, names of parents (if known), method of final disposition (for example, burial or cremation), and cause of death.
Death records are used for a variety of purposes. They’re necessary for planning funeral arrangements and cremations, as well as for processing life insurance benefits claims, and estate planning. They're also helpful for citizenship claims, and for ethnicity claims by Native Americans and others.
Unlike birth certificates and marriage certificates, you can find death records quickly if you know where to look. Still, they're not considered a public record unless the deceased was born at least 75 years ago and is known to be dead.
Immediate family members can usually access death records without any limitation, although laws vary from state to state.
Most states also allow step-family members, as well as aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews, to order death records for relatives, as long as they provide a valid reason such planning funeral arrangements or performing genealogy research. Attorneys representing the estate of the deceased can also access death records.
Many others can also obtain death records if they can demonstrate a legitimate need for them. The deceased’s doctor, creditors of the estate, genealogists representing the family, and parties in civil and criminal lawsuits can access them with a court's permission.
The laws for accessing death records differ in every state. However, there are several similarities shared in most states.
All death records are stored in a state or county office of vital records. You’ll need to contact your local office to request a death certificate or other type of certified death record.
In each state, you'll need to fill out a death records request form. You can use a third-party records provider to search for basic information, but to receive a certified death record, you'll need to provide the right documentation.
In most states, you'll need to show a legitimate reason to request recent death records before your application can be approved. If you're making an unusual request, you may first need approval from a court.
Before your request for a certified death record is approved, you'll also be asked to prove your relationship with the deceased. If you're a family member, you can usually meet this requirement by submitting a copy of your birth certificate or marriage certificate as proof of family relationship.
Attorneys, physicians and other professionals representing the deceased must supply their credentials along with proof of a previous business relationship.
All states collect a small processing fee before they release death records. The fee is usually about $20.
You can request death records directly from the local office of vital records in the community where the person died. However, sometimes it’s easier to use a third-party platform instead.
You may want to use an online death records search platform if you're ordering them from another state. Navigating another state’s laws regarding death certificates and other vital records may be difficult, and your local office of vital records probably can't help with that task.
Online platforms usually have close connections the vital records offices in each state and county, which makes the process much easier and faster.
Another benefit of using an online platform is the fact that it can usually process your request and find the target death records immediately.
The exception is if the office of vital statistics in the subject state requires notarized death certificate request forms. Still, even if you're required to provide proof of identification, you can usually do it online.
A leading online platform can also minimize the time and aggravation when searching for death records. There may be standard request forms available, so you won't need to contact a distant office of vital records directly.
Some death records requests are processed quickly, while others take a long time to complete. Your request may be processed within a few business days, or it can take several weeks.
Many variables can affect the amount of time required to receive a certified death record. Some states' offices of vital statistics are faster and more efficient than others.
And, if that office is located in a large city such as New York or Chicago, it may have better technology to help workers quickly find the death records you've requested.
The age of the death records is another factor. If you’re requesting death records that are over 30 years old, they may be stored on paper instead of digital format, and you may wait longer to receive them.
It's also important to realize that some death records may be lost or unrecoverable. The subject office of vital records will advise you if your requested death certificate has been permanently lost or destroyed.
Assuming the requested death records are available, the office of vital records can process them faster if you file an expedited request form. This process may shorten the waiting period by a couple of weeks.
You may also wait longer (or be denied) if your request didn't meet all the application requirements. For example, if you didn’t provide proof of your relationship with the deceased, the office of vital records may delay the process until you comply.