The Truth Behind Death Certificates and What You Need to Know

In October 10, 2016


Death certificates are the last thing on your mind when you lose a loved one, however they are one of the most important vital records. Understanding what is on a death certificate, if you need a doctor signature, or how to spot any errors on a death certificate are all crucial to settling a deceased person’s accounts, estate, and other holdings. Knowing some basic facts about death certificates will help you navigate this confusing and upsetting time with some ease, knowing you are prepared with a proper certificate.

Death Certificate Facts:

  • While the CDC has a standard form for reporting the death information (you can view it here), which is used by Coroner’s offices and such, each state will typically have it’s own unique Death Certificate format.  
  • Death was not always formally recorded like it is now. While notes were taken about deaths, a centralized recording system was not in place with a standardized form until the early 1900’s in the United States.
  • A death certificate must be registered with the local and or state vital records office when a person passes away. This typically takes a few days and copies will be quickly available to you for use in settling accounts and holdings of the deceased.
  • You can order copies of a death certificate directly from the vital records office (generally at the department of health or city/town hall where the death occurred), online through an authorized, official service like VitalChek, or have the funeral home order copies for you.
  • You should wait for the Coroner’s or Medical Examiner’s final results on cause of death before trying to order a copy of the death certificate. In order to properly close policies and such, insurance companies and some banks may require  the final cause of death be shown on the death certificate.

Why is a death certificate so important you may ask? Well, it isn’t just so you can close accounts of your loved one, it’s also so government agencies like the CDC can track diseases, connections between unhealthy habits and death, and other important factors. Many people also use death certificates to track their family genealogy. Here is some information you may typically see on a death certificate, which may vary depending upon the State issuing the certificate.

What is typically on a Death Certificate?

  • Date of death
  • Full name
  • Gender
  • Marital and/or employment status
  • Veteran status
  • Address at time of death
  • Parental birth and death information
  • Cause of death (if entitled)
  • A signature from a doctor, coroner, or medical examiner


What Issues May Happen with a Death Certificate?

  • The truth about death certificates is that they are not an exact science and they may not contain the same amount of detail or information as other vital records.
  • Doctors may refuse to sign a death certificate when they are unsure of the cause of death or they are suspicious of the cause of death. However, there are laws that prevent them from delaying a finalized death certificate without good reason. If you run into this issue with a loved one’s death certificate, you must look up your state’s law on finalizing death certificates. Many states have a 10 day limit on how long a death certificate can go unsigned.
  • The wrong cause of death may appear on a death certificate when it is unknown or could have been the result of more than one health issue.


Now that you know more about what is on a death certificate and how to get one, you can be prepared during this stressful time. If you need to order a copy of a death certificate, you can easily order online at VitalChek. Let us help you obtain the vital records you need so you can move forward.


  1. Local Funeral Home lost doesn’t have any idea where are son’s death certificate is 10 of them. What should we do about this. Should we just let somebody have 10 of our son’s death certificates what can be done about it

    1. Hello Steven. Please accept our condolences on the loss of your son. Regarding the missing death certificates, you may want to report this issue to local authorities and see if they have any suggestions on what to do next. Reach out to the funeral home again to see if they can offer further assistance in locating the missing documents. We sincerely hope you locate them.

  2. Who do we contact to get an accurate cause of death

    1. Hello Kim. Please accept our condolences regarding the death of your sister. If you are not satisfied with the information you received regarding her death, we suggest you contact the agency that issued her death certificate to determine what steps you can take to find out more.

  3. How do I proceed if I encounter a refusal of doctors for no good reason at a hospital where the death occurred to sign the death certificate, and the delay is well past the timeline stated by law in my state (Michigan)? Whom should I contact to file a complaint?

    1. Hello Jennifer. Thanks for reaching out with your question. We suggest you try contacting the medical examiner’s office. They may be able to sign the death certificate or at least advise you as to your next course of action. We hope you get a speedy resolution to this issue.

  4. I lost my husband three years ago and do to disabilities of my own I remain a dependent on him
    through the V/A widows benefits, I signed power of attorney over to the V.F.W. to try to retrieve
    money owed to us due to an over payment/re-pay issue but the V.F.W. officer said that the death
    certificate needed to be changed by the V/A doctor that issued it because it only stated cause of death being
    {cancer} not what ALL the causes could have been. This is some what irritating to me because I didn’t go the the V.F.W.
    for this reason… I went to them to help me gain the money owed by the V/A that they with held from my husband over a period of about
    8 to 10 years in the amount of $500.00 per month times 8 or 10 years… the proof is in his records in the
    finance records but getting some one to get that chapter opened and take a look at it is like pulling teeth from a
    dinosaur.I don’t understand what the V.F.W. officer is trying to get at wanting me to have the death certificate changed or to state that the cause of death
    could be just as likely the congestive heart failure as it was the cancer that ate his whole body up.
    My husband was service connected for the heart issue but not cancer… there for they don’t have to pay
    as much money… THIS IS NOT MY ISSUE! I want what the V/A/ cheated him out of by taking too much money out of his non service connected
    disability pension in the time frame of 8 to 10 years… HOW DO I ACHIEVE THIS TASK?

    1. Hello Melody. We’re sorry to hear about your situation with the VA. You may want to consider obtaining legal representation to get this issue resolved. Perhaps there are legal support groups that assist families of veterans.

  5. I requested discharge summary of my husband and the record of date of death is wrong
    He passed away October 27,2017 at nygh toronto
    But in his hospital record said he passed away November 28,2017
    Im calling and leave message to medical record department but up till now no call back yet
    I spoke to patient relation manager but still no result and now shes on vacation leave
    Its very upsetting and i dont know what to do.
    Please leave comment in regards of this matter
    Thank you

    1. Hello Evelyn. Please accept our condolences on your loss. The only thing we can suggest is that you contact the hospital again to see if there is someone else who can assist you while the patient relation manager is on leave. We hope you are able to get this resolved quickly.

  6. Who do I contact if the funeral home will not assist me in getting the correct cause of death on my mother’s death certificate I spoke with the hospice center that sign the death certificate the doctor wrote a diagnosis that was totally incorrect they told me it was up to the funeral home to contact them to have it corrected the funeral home said it had to go to the state my mom passed in July of 2017 this is now December 2017 and they say they still have not received the corrected death certificate and have no other information to offer me is there any other recourse I can take

    1. Hello Judy. We’re sorry for your loss and we’re sorry to hear about the issues surrounding your mother’s death certificate. It sounds like you have taken all the steps you can to get the error corrected without any results so you may want to consider seeking some legal guidance on this matter.

  7. My husband passed on November 12 2017 the certificate I have say’s pending and no results waiting on toxicology report I don’t understand how long

    1. Hello Elyse. We’re sorry for your loss. You may want to contact the coroner or medical examiner to find out if they can give you an estimation of when you might receive information pertaining to the official cause of death.

  8. Hi there, I just wanna ask if do I need to correct my husband death certificate on the surviving spouse name there is an error, on my last name and middle name, Do I need to correct it? What should I do? Please help.

    1. Hello Anita. We’re sorry for your loss. If you need to present the death certificate to claim any sort of survivor’s benefits, it may be necessary for you to have the error in your name corrected. You will need to contact the vital records agency that issued the certificate for information on how to get the correction made.

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