How to Find a Death Record in US?

What Are Death Records?

Death records are vital records, and they are official documents containing important information about deceased persons. A death record is considered the legal proof of the time and date a death event occurs. It is also the only tenable proof that someone has died. Generally, death records in the United States are public records and are accessible to eligible persons. Before the official recording of death records started in the United States, most religious institutions recorded them and were valuable sources of extracting family histories. Some regions in the United States began recording death events as early as 1632. However, this responsibility was later shouldered by the state and local vital record offices in 1900. By the mid-1930s, all states within the nation had started collecting mortality data. Death records are usually held in the state where such events occurred and not the deceased persons' burial locations. The United States has 57 independent jurisdictions responsible for collecting information on death events. These include the 50 states, New York City (separate from the State of New York), District of Columbia, and Northern Marianas Islands. Others are the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and Guam.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), over 2.8 million deaths are reported annually in the United States. The major leading causes of death in the United States include diabetes, heart disease, accidents, stroke, respiratory diseases, Alzheimer's disease, influenza, and pneumonia. Death records are required for various purposes in the United States. Government authorities use them in investigating the cause of death where foul play is suspected. They also help public health officials collect data on several statistics leading to causes of death and the types of ailments preceding death. Besides these, individuals can use death records for the following:

  • Claiming life insurance
  • Getting access to pension benefits
  • Making funeral arrangements
  • Getting married (where an individual needs to confirm the demise of the previous partner)
  • Settling estates

A typical death record in the United States contains the following information:

  • Names of decedent's family members - A death record is a good source for names of decedent's spouses, siblings, and parents.

  • Decedent's date and place of birth and marriage (if married) - A death record can provide valuable information on the location of a deceased person's birth and marriage records.

  • Possible military service - Death records are a good source of determining if one's ancestors served in the military. Such information usually includes the decent's rank, number of years in service, branch, and unit. Anyone can further research such a decedent's military record from this piece of information on a death record.

  • Decedent's occupation before demise - The occupation listed on a death record may define the kind of person a decedent was. Besides, certain professions have some employment benefits which decedents' family members may wish to claim.

Others include:

  • The decedent's full name
  • The decedent's social security number
  • The decedent's gender
  • Cause of death
  • The decedent's age at death
  • The decedent’s address at death

How Are Death Records Created?

Although states have the legal mandate of collecting death records, the federal government also plays a vital role. States usually offer modifications of death certificates. However, many states are adopting the U.S Standard Certificate of Death provided by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). In documenting a death event, however, the most valuable information required is the cause and manner of death. The certifier must identify and describe this while creating a death record. The causes of deaths are the conditions and series of events leading to death. Underlying causes of death overtime should also be determined.

The person who signs a death certificate differs by state and usually depends on state law. Generally, an attending physician, a primary physician, a non-attending physician, a coroner, a forensic pathologist, a medical examiner, and a nurse practitioner can sign a death certificate. However, the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME) confirms that medical examiners and coroners sign an estimated 20% of all death certificates in the United States. The physician's primary responsibility in death registration is declaring such a death. Where the physician is also the attending physician, they may report the cause of death. A different physician pronounces death only when the attending physician is unavailable to certify the cause of death at the time of the event if State law permits.

The cause of death section of the Certificate of Death must be completed by either the coroner, attending physician, or the medical examiner. This section is intended to obtain the opinion of the certifier regarding a death event. It provides an etiologic explanation of the type, order, and chains of events resulting in death. It is mandatory to record all death events with local health departments within three days and to the state, seven days at the most. The NCHS obtains information on death events recorded within states from the State Vital Records Offices for compiling mortality data. This data is essential to manage funding and future preventive policies and is used by government agencies and private entities.

How To Find Death Records Online

The National Death Index (NDI) is an online repository of all death events in the United States. It currently contains over 100 million death records from 1979 through the years. Death records are added to the NDI list every year, usually 12 months after the end of a particular calendar year. The National Center for Health Statistics established the NDI to help health and medical investigators in mortality determination pursuits. It is, however, unavailable to the general public for administrative, genealogy, or legal purposes. The database is exclusively accessible by persons or entities requiring such records for statistical purposes in medical and health research. The NDI assists investigators in determining whether the persons under their research have died. If such is the case, the database provides the dates of death, the state in which the death events occurred, and the death certificate numbers. Each record filed in the NDI has its unique certificate number. Once this information is obtained, investigators can establish contact with the state's vital record offices to request copies of such death certificates. They can also ask for specific information from the death records, such as the cause of death.

The NDI file uses the NDI Retrieval Program to ascertain whether a specific NDI death record passes as a possible match with a particular user record. However, both records must fulfill at least one of seven matching criteria to qualify as a possible record match. Also, the specified data items on both documents must agree. Some information can help facilitate records matching, and NDI users are encouraged to provide as many as they can for each research. These include last and first names, middle initial, sex, marital status, state of birth, social security number, father's surname, state of residence, and date of birth. The NCHS provides a guide on how to use the National Death Index. Some states also offer online services for death record requests and are managed by the states’ vital record offices. Residents of such states must, however, provide accurate information about the decedents to take advantage of these services.

Considered open to citizens of the United States, public records are available through both traditional, government sources, and through third-party websites and organizations. In many cases, third-party websites make the search easier as they are not limited geographically or by technological limitations. They are considered a good place to start when looking for a specific record or multiple records. In order to gain access to these records, interested parties must typically provide:

  • The name of the person listed in the record. Juveniles are typically exempt from this search method.
  • The last known or assumed location of the person listed in the record. This includes cities, counties, and states.

While third-party sites offer such services, they are not government-sponsored entities, and record availability may vary on these sites when compared to government sources.

How To Find Death Records For Free

Interested persons can find death records for free in the United States using the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). The SSDI was created from the Social Security Administration's (SSA) Death Master File (DMF). It is a data pool of death records of Americans whose deaths were reported to the SSA and contains records from 1962. The DMF has over 83 million death records. Each death record provides valuable information on each decedent, if available on the SSA's file. Such information includes name, date of birth, date of death, and social security number. However, the SSA does not have records of all death events, and the absence of a person's record does not mean the person is still alive.

Arising from the restrictions enacted in March 2014, recent entries to publicly available versions of the SSDI are not publicly accessible. The most reliable way of searching a death record on any publicly available version of the SSDI is using the decedent's social security number. However, if this is not available, search with the decedent's name. If there is an ambiguity with spelling the decedent's last name, use the drop-down menu on the search page to select Soundex or Metaphone to find spelling deviations. If available on record, the SSDI search will return information on the deceased, including the places they lived. The information obtained from the SSDI search can be used to request a copy of the decedent's original Social Security application record (SS-5), although at a fee. A person can also narrow the search of a decedent's death certificate using the information obtained (for free) from the SSDI search.

How To Find Death Records by Mail

Persons interested in obtaining death records in the United States must first identify the state in which such events occurred. Death records are usually filed in local or state vital records offices. To find a death record by mail, a requester should do the following after identifying the location of the event:

  • Obtain and complete provided death certificate application form
  • Attach a legible copy of any government-issued photo ID and other required documents to the application
  • Enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope and payment proof as may be required by the state or local vital record office in the application.
  • Forward the completed application to the local or state vital record office.

Most Vital Record Offices host death certificate application forms on their official websites, and requesters can download and print such application forms to file their requests. Most of these forms require that a requester provide the following information about a decedent:

  • Decedent's full name
  • Names of decedent's parents, including mother's maiden name
  • Sex
  • Date of birth (month, day, and year)
  • Requester's relationship with the decedent
  • Purpose of request
  • Place of death (town, city, county, and state)
  • Requester's phone number

A requester must, however, provide all information accurately to facilitate a smooth search.

How To Find Death Records In Person

To find a United States death record in person, the requester should identify the state where such a death event occurred and visit their Vital Record Office. Once at this office, the requester should obtain a death certificate application form and complete it. Afterward, they should attach a clear copy of their government-issued photo ID and pay the required fees as advised by the office. In most cases, the staff of the Vital Record Office will advise on the acceptable payment channels for an in-person death record request.

Where Can I Get Death Records?

Obtain a death certificate in the United States from the designated Vital Record Office in the state where the death event took place. Requesters can apply for death certificates at such locations via mail or in person. Each state's Vital Record Offices list their mailing and physical addresses on their official websites. Interested persons should copy these addresses and file their requests as it suits them. Some counties with local vital record offices also do the same. Also, some states permit specific local public health departments to issue death records to interested and eligible persons. However, requesters must know that the application process may vary by state, city, and county, including the period in the week to file requests.

How to Obtain a Certified Copy of a Death Certificate?

Not everyone is eligible to get a copy of a death certificate in the United States. Generally, each state determines who obtains a copy of a death certificate and the type of certificate they can get. Eligible persons can acquire either certified or informational copies of a birth certificate. Informational copies of a death record contain personal records and are often available to anyone who needs them. In most states, certified copies of a death certificate are available only to immediate relatives of a decedent and administrator of the decedent's estate. Anyone who can demonstrate a direct financial interest in a decedent's estate also qualifies to obtain certified copies of a death certificate. Certified copies carry an official stamp and are usually needed for varying reasons. They are required for transferring a decedent's assets to beneficiaries and obtaining a permit for a decedent's cremation or burial.

In a typical situation, however, the following persons and entities can get a United States death record:

  • Decedent's immediate family members (parent, spouse, child, and sibling)
  • Funeral director
  • Government agency
  • Decedent's estate administrator
  • The informant named on the death certificate

Eligible requesters are also required to provide legible copies of their valid government-issued photo IDs besides other documents. The widely acceptable IDs include:

  • The United States issued driver license or identification card
  • Tribal identification card bearing the requester's signature
  • The United States military identification card bearing the requester's signature
  • Resident Alien Card (Form I-551)
  • Employment Authorization Card (Form I-766)
  • Employment Authorization Card (Form I-688A)
  • Temporary Resident Card (Form I-688)
  • The United States or Foreign issued Passport
  • Visa stamped in a passport that has the requester's signature
  • United States Territories Driver License or Identification Card

How Much Does a Death Certificate Cost?

The cost of obtaining a death record in the United States differs by state and county. In most cases, however, the price ranges from $5 to $25. Varying rules also apply. The cost of obtaining a death record via mail may differ from what a requester will pay for an in-person request. It may also be the same in some states. Also, while some states will charge the same flat processing fee irrespective of the mode of application, others may charge different fees. Some states charge requesters the same price for each copy of the same death record. Others may charge lesser fees for each subsequent copy of a death record in the same order. Copies of death certificates ordered online also come at different costs to requesters, depending on the states.

The acceptable means of paying processing fees for death records ordered online is a debit or credit card. For mail-in requests, most states have a preference for checks and money orders as payment means, while some allow cash payments. The majority of the states accept cash as a medium of payment for in-person death record requests. Requesters are encouraged to contact the Vital Record Offices in the states or counties where the death certificates of their interest are filed to get first-hand information on processing fees. They can also obtain this information from their official websites.

How Long Does It Take To Get A Death Certificate?

Each state in the United States has a varying turn-around time for processing death record requests. It can take from one day to some weeks, depending on the mode of application. Most in-person requests are fulfilled on the same day of request or the following business day if such requests arrive towards the end of the day. However, because a death certificate is an official document, requesters might not be able to expedite the process, especially for mail-in applications. Persons who wish to go for expedited delivery must pay additional fees different from the standard processing fees.

To avoid delayed processing of a death record request, a requester should ensure to fill out accurate information at the point of application. If the state's Vital Record Office cannot find the death certificate requested, they will provide the applicant with a Certificate of Failure to Find. It is also known as a No Record Statement and is proof that such a requester tried locating the death certificate. Requesters can confirm states-specific information on how long it takes to get copies of death certificates from the official website of each state's Vital Records Office.

How Long To Keep Records After Death

In the United States, certain records are usually kept after a person's demise. While some are retained indefinitely, it is possible to discard others after a few years. If unsure whether a document should be kept, save such a document rather than throw it away. After a person's death, it is better to destroy documents containing financial and personal information to prevent identity theft. The different types of documents to keep after a person's demise include medical records, legal records, financial records, and other miscellaneous documents.

  • Medical Records

Medical records include medical tests, medical history, health insurance cards, prescriptions, and hospital discharge papers. Most medical providers now store these records electronically, and interested persons can obtain them from decedents' medical providers if required. Retain a decedent's medical records for a minimum of 10 years after death.

  • Legal Records

Legal records include birth certificates, death certificates, divorce decrees, social security cards, marriage certificates or prenuptial agreements, and legal will. Interested and eligible persons can obtain them from the relevant Vital Records Offices after a person's demise, and it is a good idea to request multiple copies of such documents. A decedent's legal records should be kept indefinitely.

  • Financial Records

Financial records include pay stubs, receipts, tax returns, account statements, and retirement benefit statements. Keep these documents for a minimum of three years after a person's death or three years after filing any required estate taxes, whichever is earlier.

How To Expunge Death Records

Expungement of a record is the permanent removal of some or whole part of such a document from government records. It is a legal process commonly associated with criminal records. Generally, anything to do with a death record is going to be hard to expunge, and only if it is possible at all. There is currently no straight-through process for death record expungement in the United States.

How To Seal Death Records

Sealing a record makes it confidential and keeps it away from public access. There is currently no known provision for death records sealing in the United States.

How to Unseal Death Records

There is no reason to unseal death records in the United States since there is no known provision for death record sealing.