After Death Comes…

Everyone does it, but no one likes to talk about it:


No one likes to talk about dying or death, our own or others.

And I’m no exception.

But I read an article that got me thinking about death:

You can see the article was published on September 4.

That’s how long it’s taken for me to steel myself to talk about death.

The article got me thinking not only about death but also – from the headline – the planning involved in what happens after a death.  Meaning, if I had to deal with a loved one’s death, or if someone had to deal with my death.

And that got me wondering about one component of that planning, about which I know nothing:

Certificate of Death

Death certificates.

“Death certificate” is a phrase we often hear in news stories:  “According to the death certificate, the victim died of a gunshot wound…” and, “The death certificate lists pancreatic cancer as the cause of death…”

But what I didn’t know until I started researching death certificates was that if I’m designated as the person responsible for settling the estate of a deceased loved one (or other person), I can’t do this without the deceased’s death certificate.

According to this article:

“There are several reasons why you may need to obtain a death certificate.  Most often it’s to serve as proof for legal purposes.  These reasons may include accessing pension benefits, claiming life insurance, settling estates, getting married (if a widow or widower needs to prove that their previous partner has passed), or arranging for a funeral.”

“What,” I wondered, “do they mean by ‘obtain’ a death certificate?  Doesn’t – someone – just send that to me after my loved one dies?”


Now, I’ll be talking only about my state – California – and we know that guidelines for this (as for so many things) vary from state to state.  But I expect there are commonalities among all states with regards to death certificates.

And here’s a commonality to expect:

In California, there is no “someone” who just goes ahead and sends a loved one’s death certificate to you.  As my research soon showed…

You must ask for it.

And I must obtain not just a death certificate, but an “authorized certified copy” of a death certificate.

And I can request that authorized certified copy only if I’m a “person authorized under California law,” according to the Marin County, CA website:

“Although vital records are public documents, under California law, certificates are not open for public inspection.  Anyone may request copies, however only persons authorized under California law may receive authorized certified copies of death records.”

How do I show that I’m a “persons authorized?”  Apparently it’s not enough for me to call the county office and say, for example, “Hello, I’m the legal guardian of the deceased” or, “Yes, I’m the spouse of the deceased,” and the county sends the death certificate to me.

No – I must prove I’m a “persons authorized.”

The Marin County website advises that I do this via a sworn statement that’s part of the death certificate request form, which I may need to sign before a notary public.  Here’s the request form:

Here’s the sworn statement section:

I continued my research on the state website:

The California Department of Public Health – CDPH.

The first thing I thought when I saw this site was,

“This looks like another DMV.  This is going to take me into a black hole, just like the DMV site does.”

I was right.

The site does tell me right up front:

“Certified death records are $24 per copy.”

And to settle an estate, I’ll need multiple copies for reasons that could include selling a loved one’s house, car, boat and/or second home; settling debts and closing credit cards; claiming life insurance; notifying Social Security; closing online accounts; accessing bank accounts and investment accounts; and making arrangements with a funeral home.

I can request the death certificate via an electronic submission, a mail-in request, or through the County Clerk/Recorder.

Electronic submission seemed like the most expeditious route, so I looked at that first and learned:

“There are independent, third party companies that process online requests for certified copies of vital records.  Online services provided by an independent company may charge a processing fee on all orders.  That fee may vary with each company, and will be charged in addition to the certified copy fee.  Any questions regarding online requests or online orders should be directed to the third-party company involved.”

My interpretation:

Electronic submission will also hit you with a fee, and if there’s a problem – contact them, not us.

How about a mail-in request?

Here’s the first step for the mail-in request:

“Before submitting your application to CDPH Vital Records, please view our Processing Times to make sure they are acceptable for your needs and if this is the best option. 

“If not, you should submit your request online or to the County Recorder’s Office in the county where the death took place.”

“Processing Times.”  Let’s look at that.

“The California Department of Public Health – Vital Records’ (CDPH-VR) average time to process a certified copy request is 6 to 8 weeks.”

“Average time,” of course, means it could be less than six to eight weeks – or it could mean more – before you can begin to settle an estate.

And that “six to eight weeks” may be overly optimistic – according to this website:

Expect a Slow Turnaround
California does not issue death certifies copies quickly, even if you need them to begin executing a will or trust.  The Department of Public Health/Vital Records states that it processes requests within 10-12 weeks.  Due to the coronavirus pandemic and staffing cuts, it could take even longer.

My third option for obtaining an authorized certified copy of a death certificate is contacting the County Clerk/Recorder.  I decided to look at my county, and this led me to a list of “County Registrars and Recorders” by county and city, which led me to my county’s Office of Vital Records and Statistics:

Where I learned that they, too, charge a $24 fee to obtain an authorized certified copy of a death certificate in person or by mail.

If I go the online route through something called “VitalCheck,” there’s an additional processing fee of $12.95.  VitalCheck graciously springs for the postage if you request the death certificate by mail (and we know how “by mail” can work out), but if you’re in a hurry, there’s a $19 charge for Express UPS.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are now in that Black Hole I mentioned earlier.

And once you get your authorized certified copies of the death certificate, cautioned this article on

“Don’t let the death certificates get into the wrong hands.  Death certificates can provide a lot of access to personal documents and/or assets.”

There’s a kind of irony in all this.

That the piece I need the most to start settling my loved one’s estate – the authorized certified copy of the death certificate – requires a time-consuming process that could take two months or more, but I can’t get this taken care of ahead of time.

I can’t request this until my loved one dies. Of course not. It’s just…


Now let’s circle back to that September 4 Washington Post article and the phrase that got me started into my research about how to obtain a death certificate.

“What do you do after someone dies?  Most people expect to deal with intense grief, but they might not realize how many logistical details arise after a death.  Those tasks can feel overwhelming:  deciding who to call, learning where to get death certificates, planning memorials and navigating finances.”

The article didn’t tell me how to get an authorized certified copy of a death certificate, so I went on the research journey I’ve recounted.

The article does talk about…

“…new apps and websites with names such as Cake, Lantern and Empathy exist to help people navigate the tumult and confusion after a loss, offering tools that range from organized checklists for the early days of funeral planning to resources for later concerns such as closing a deceased person’s credit card account or finding a home for the deceased person’s pet.”

I wondered if these sites offer information about obtaining a death certificate, so I went on Cake and discovered that they do:

Cake, Lantern and Empathy may be helpful.

I’ll designate the Washington Post article as helpful because it got me thinking about all this.  I’m now better informed, and I’ll make sure my husband is, too.

The last thing I’ll include is the full list of “Individuals Permitted to Receive an Authorized Certified Copy,” this time from a Los Angeles County website which refers to the deceased as the “registrant”:

  1. A parent or legal guardian of the registrant.
  2. A member of a law enforcement agency or a representative of another governmental agency, as provided by law, who is conducting official business.
  3. A child, grandparent, grandchild, sibling, spouse or domestic partner of the registrant.
  4. An attorney representing the registrant or the registrant’s estate, or any person or agency empowered by statute or appointed by a court to act on behalf of the registrant or the registrant estate.
  5. Any funeral director or agent/employee of a funeral establishment acting within the scope of their employment who orders certified copies of a death on behalf of any individual specified in paragraphs (1) to (5), inclusive of subdivision (a) of Section 7100 of the Health and Safety Code.
  6. Any individual specified in paragraphs (1) to (8) inclusive of subdivision (a) of Health & Safety Code 7100.

With regards to #4 and #5, it appears an attorney of/representing the estate of the deceased, and a funeral director/employee, can request an authorized certified copy of my loved one’s death certificate, so if I have one or both of those, I may not have to do the requesting.

Though I’ll confess I did not delve into “paragraphs (1) to (5), inclusive of subdivision (a) of Section 7100 of the Health and Safety Code” or, “paragraphs (1) to (8) inclusive of subdivision (a) of Health & Safety Code 7100.”

I just couldn’t deal with one more trip into the bureaucracy…

…black hole:

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