Estate Administration Checklist Item:  The Death Certificate – 4 Ways to Obtain One in California

Death Certificate and Estate Planning Attorney San Diego

Estate Planning and Estate Administration Checklist – Obtaining Death Certificate

In California, when a person dies, an official death certificate is filed in the county health department or vital statistics office of the county where the death occurred. The death certificate provides important personal information about the deceased, including Social Security number, date of birth and death, occupation, and cause of death.

Certified copies of the death certificate are necessary to carry out many of your tasks as estate representative.  For example, a certified copy of a death certificate is necessary for collecting insurance proceeds and other death benefits and transferring jointly owned property.

Make sure you order plenty of certified copies – one for each insurance policy, financial account, property, etc. of the deceased and even a few extra beyond that, to save time and to avoid disputes with bureaucrats and agencies about whether or not they will accept a photocopy, as even if they are wrong about requiring a certified copy, providing them with one will save you lots of headaches.  I typically request that my clients order a minimum of ten to be safe.

1.      Mortuary.  The easiest and quickest way to obtain certified copies of the death certificate is to ask the mortuary you deal with to obtain them for you and add the cost to your bill. This is a common practice, and the mortuary will know how to make the arrangements.

2.      County Recorder or County Clerk.  You can also order death certificates by contacting the vital records office in the county where the person died.  Depending on the county, this office is usually called the county recorder’s office or the county clerk. Death certificates are normally available from the county a few weeks after the death.  If an autopsy is being performed, it will delay the ability of the county to list a cause of death on the certificate by several months, but you can obtain an interim death certificate, which states the cause of death as “deferred.”  Financial institutions and government agencies will accept this type of interim death certificate but insurance companies will not as they need the definitive cause of death to process the claim.   

3.      Online.  You can also order death certificates on www.vitalcheck.com for most counties in California.  You will need to pay with a credit card, and if you need certified copies, you’ll still have to submit a notarized certification of identity by fax or email. Expect to pay significant processing and shipping fees.

4.      California Department of Health Services.   If six months have passed since the date of death, you can also obtain death certificates from the State of California.  However, it can take up to six weeks to process these requests so even the state recommends that you obtain them from the county.  You can find information on the Department of Health Care Services website at www. dhs.ca.gov. Choose “Services” and look for the link about ordering death certificates.

Because of concerns about identity theft, California allows only certain individuals to obtain certified copies of a death certificate. (California Health & Safety Code § 103526.) But, if you are the executor or a close family member, you won’t have a problem getting the documents you need.