Understanding Death Certificates

death certificate

You can’t escape taxes and death, and the latter comes with a certificate. The official term is death certificate, and it’s a required form for everybody who dies. (Other countries may do things differently, but that’s how it is in the USA.)

You may first deal with a death certificate when making funeral arrangements for a family member. That’s when we ask you general questions about the deceased - such as birth date, place of birth, occupation, and so on. The one that often stumps people is the mother’s maiden name. Sometimes relatives have to go home, search through albums and drawers, and call us later with the correct surname and spelling.

This interviewing is all for the biographical half of the form. In the meantime, we’ve sent the other half to the primary healthcare provider to fill out. The death certificate form wants them to state the cause of death, with a listing of any ailments contributing to it.

When both halves are filled out, we file the completed original form with the county vital records office. They then create the decedent’s certified copies of death certificates. We pick them up and have them waiting for you at our office, or we can mail them to you.

It’s during your arrangement meeting with us when you decide how many official certified copies you want to order. Each costs $20, and as a courtesy, we order them for you.

We explain which entities (such as insurance companies) expect a certified copy to keep forever, and which entities are more casual (like banks and the DMV) who just want to see a watermarked certified copy but will nicely make their own photocopy and hand you back the original. The rule of thumb is that certified death certificates are needed for entities handling transactions requiring a transfer of financial assets. Please refer to our Family Information Guide.

We often caution families not to order too many right off the bat, because once a certified death certificate is created, it’s easy to quickly get more. We’ll order additional copies and pick them up for you. Our turnaround time is usually about two days. Or you can stop by the county’s vital records office and obtain them right away.

After two months, all the county offices forward their death certificates to Olympia, where they are permanently stored with the Center for Health Statistics in the Washington State Department of Health. They’ve got death certificates dating back to 1907. Again, it’s easy to get more $20 copies, via walk-in same day service, over the phone, online, or by mailing in your request.