How to Get a Physician's Certificate and Death Certificate

When someone dies, you'll need to obtain a physician's certificate and a death certificate for legal and estate purposes.

Physician's certificates. State laws require that a licensed doctor formally pronounce a person dead, generally after physically examining the body. There are some exceptions to the examination requirement, such as when another medical professional describes the person's medical condition to the doctor, who is then satisfied that death has occurred.

Usually, the deceased's attending or primary care physician will complete the certification, although the county medical examiner or coroner can also do so if called in to investigate a death.

Most laws set a time limit of 24 to 48 hours within which the certification of death must be signed. This is a prerequisite for obtaining a death certificate.

Death certificates. Certified copies of a death certificate, which cost about $10 to $15 each, are needed for:

  • Probating estates.
  • Processing insurance claims.
  • Getting Social Security, veterans or retirement benefits, and other benefits on the deceased's behalf.

If you're using the services of a funeral home, the funeral director may help complete the death certificate and secure copies, for an extra service fee.

If you need to get copies on your own, contact the local county records office if the death was recent. A few months after a death, you can obtain a death certificate from the state records office. Get information on where to order and how much copies cost through the National Center for Health Statistics.

Initially, it's a good idea to get at least ten copies of the death certificate, because institutions such as banks, government agencies, credit card and insurance companies, former employers, and stock brokerages will each request a copy (which they won't return to you) when asked to close accounts or transfer property from the deceased to another person.

Barbara Kate Repa

Barbara Kate Repa, a lawyer and journalist, has devoted her career to editing and writing about legal issues for consumers. See full bio