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How to Find a Death Record in California?

What Are Death Records in California?

A death record is a legal documentation of a person’s death detailing the date, location, and cause of the incident as recorded in an official death register. Typically, death records are generated and issued by medical practitioners or government civil registration offices, depending on where the deaths occurred and the circumstances surrounding them.

Some of the information contained in a California death record are:

  • Decedent’s full name, including first name, middle name, last name, and alias (if any)
  • Decedent’s biodata, including race or color, sex, etc.
  • State file number
  • Local registration number
  • Place of birth and death
  • Date of birth and death, including age
  • Occupation
  • Marital status
  • Parental and spousal information
  • Name of funeral establishment and license number
  • Cause of death (medical and health data)
  • Informant’s information
  • Place of residence before death
  • Physician’s certification

Under California Health & Safety Code 103550, death records may be issued in two forms, namely informational and authorized copies. When a local and state registrar records a death, the record is established as the state’s legal record of the death and may be presented as a prima facie evidence in all courts. Death records come in handy when applying for probate or administration of a decedent’s estate, closing bank accounts, determining insurance and pension benefits, monitoring mortality trends, and providing outcome data for research studies. They may also be required for genealogical research and other legal purposes. Government agencies also use official death records to update their records. Some of which include electoral registers, government benefits paid, passport records, etc.

In addition, death records are useful when defining priorities for health-related financing, epidemiological research, and public health interventions.

How are Death Records Created in California?

The process of recording a death incident in California requires the involvement of a medical certifier, funeral director, local registrar, California State Office of Vital Records, and the National Vital Statistics System (NVSS). With the web-based California Electronic Death Registration System (CA-EDRS), the death registration process is accelerated. Its ready access enables death registrations to occur within the eight days required by the California Health and Safety Code, Chapter 6, Article 1, §102775. A California death record is created in these three steps:

  1. Gathering Personal and Demographic Information about the Decedent
    The funeral director gathers personal and demographic information about the decedent, hence commencing the death registration process and coordinating it.

  2. Creating an Accurate Cause of Death Statement on a Death Certificate
    A medical certifier, who must be a licensed physician or coroner, is responsible for this step. The medical portion of the death certificate is completed by the medical certifier who investigates and verifies a cause of the death that is sudden, unexplained, or resulting from poisoning, injury, or a public health threat. A case may be referred to the coroner for investigation, in which case the coroner fills in the cause-of-death information directly into CA-EDRS in the “Coroner’s Use Only” section. This is an electronic system where the medical examiner or coroner can record the verified cause of death and submit an electronic death certificate for registration.

    Medical certifiers are mandated to report the cause of death within 15 hours, as stipulated by the California Health and Safety Code, Chapter 6, Article 1, §102775-102805. Typically, the attending physician has the responsibility of determining the cause of death.

  3. Completion of all the Required Information and Filing with the Local Registrar
    After the funeral director has coordinated the completion of the required information, the death certificate is filed with the local registrar of births and deaths in the district where the death occurred, was formally declared, or the body was found. The record must be filed within eight calendar days after death and before the deceased’s body’s disposition. The local registrar of births and deaths legally registers the death record and passes it on to the California State Office of Vital Records and from there to the National Vital Statistics System (NVSS).

    Note that if a death occurs at home in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties, where a family member dies under hospice or nursing care, and the Electronic Death Registration is not used, a blank death certificate may be requested. No identification is required when obtaining a blank death certificate. The blank death certificate may be obtained before a predicted death, so it will be available for the doctor to complete when the death eventually occurs. The attending doctor or medical practitioner must fill in the information about the death including date, time, and cause of death. The attending doctor or medical practitioner must also provide a valid medical license number on the death certificate form and sign it.

    If the coroner gets involved during the process of completing the medical section of the certificate, visit the website for the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner-Coroner or the San Mateo County Coroner for information on how to proceed. After completing the death certificate, it must be submitted within 8 days of the death. A blank death certificate can be obtained and re-submitted to:

    San Mateo County Vital Statistics Office
    225 W. 37th Avenue
    San Mateo, CA 94403
    (650) 573-2395
    Office Hours: 8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday
    8:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. Thursday

    Or

    Santa Clara County Public Health Department Vital Records Office
    967 Lenzen Avenue, Suite 1300
    San Jose, CA 95126
    (408) 885-2008
    Office Hours: 9:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m., Monday to Friday

    After filing the completed death certificate at the appropriate office, the certified copy of the death certificate can be obtained by authorized persons.

How to Find Death Records Online in California?

The California State Office of Vital Records does not have a state-owned central database where interested persons can look up death records online. Requesters seeking to search death records online can only do this via third party websites. Contact the county recorder in the county where the death was recorded to confirm if they provide online access to death records. Interested persons may also submit mail-in or in-person requests for death records to the county recorder where the death was recorded.

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 in California?

Death records are not available for free in California. Under the Health and Safety Code, Division 1, Part 102, 103525.5, payment of fees to the State Registrar is necessary. In California, requesters can only obtain death records at a fee at the California Department of Public Health - Vital Records (CDPH-VR), the county recorders, and the county health departments.

Where Can I Get Death Records in California?

A requester can obtain a death record in California at the California Department of Public Health - Vital Records (CDPH-VR) by a mail-in request. County Recorders and County Health Departments also provide death records by mail-in and in-person requests. A requester may complete the Application for Certified Copy of Death Record and follow the instructions therein to request a death record.

Request Death Records by Mail

The CDPH-VR Office maintains only death records from July 1905 to date. Persons interested in getting death records dated before July 1905 may contact the County Recorder in the county where the event occurred. The CDPH-VR Office provides access to both certified and information copies. Certified copies can be used for official purposes and are only available to authorized persons that have a direct and legitimate interest in the records. Informational copies cannot be used for official purposes, but they are available to everyone interested in obtaining death records.

A completed Application for Certified Copy of Death Record must be accompanied by the $21 processing fee charged per copy. The fee is payable in the form of a check or money order to “CDPH - Vital Records. Note that cash payment is not allowed. The check must be from a United States bank, and the money order must be from a United States bank or provided by the United States Postal Service.

Attach a notarized sworn statement to the application only if requesting certified copies of death records. If requesting an informational copy, ensure it is specified on the application; if not, the application will be considered invalid and returned to the sender. It is important to follow all the instructions on the request application and fill accordingly. Applications must be sent via Standard Mail through the United States Postal Service. A requester may attach a self-addressed, pre-paid, certified envelope with the application to track the item once it leaves the CDPH Office (this is not mandatory).

Send the completed Application for Certified Copy of Death Record alongside the fee, notarized sworn statement (for certified copies), and other requirements stated in the application to:

California Department of Public Health
Vital Records – MS 5103
P.O. Box 997410
Sacramento, CA 95899-7410

Send application to the address below if using a courier service that requires a physical address for delivery:

California Department of Public Health
Vital Records – MS 5103
1501 Capitol Avenue
Sacramento, CA 95814

The processing time for an application sent to the CDPH ranges from three to four and a half weeks, depending on the request type. According to state laws, if the CDPH does not find the requested death record, a “Certificate of No Public Record” will be issued, but the processing fee will not be refunded.

Request Death Records in Person

The County Clerk or Recorder’s Office in counties across California maintains death records for deaths that occured in their county for all years. In contrast, the County Health Department only issues death records for deaths that occurred in the year the record is being requested or a year before that year. The California Department of Public Health provides a list of County Recorders and County Health Departments with their addresses, websites, and contact details.

A requester can submit a request to any of these custodians to obtain a death record. Contact the applicable custodian to confirm fees and the mode of request acceptable in the specified county. Note that custodians at the county-level only maintain death records for persons that died in their respective counties.

Note that due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the high risk of infection, most counties now restrict in-person requests to appointment-based only. Other counties have completely put in-person requests on hold and now only permit mail-in requests. Confirm the availability of in-person requests before opting for this option at the county-level.

Can Anyone Get a Copy of a Death Certificate in California?

Anyone can obtain death records in California, but this only applies to informational copies. Death records in California are classified into informational and certified copies. An informational copy does not have restricted access and it also contains the same information as a certified death record. However, an informational copy has a caption across the face of the document with the statement, “Informational. Not a valid document to establish identity.” Hence, these copies cannot be used for official purposes.

On the other hand, certified copies are restricted to persons authorized under the law. Authorized persons include:

  • Direct family members
  • Surviving next of kin
  • Law enforcement agents or representatives of governmental agencies, while conducting official business
  • An agent or employee of a funeral establishment, while conducting official business
  • An attorney representing the decedent or the decedent’s estate, or any individual or agency empowered by statute or appointed by a court to represent the decedent or the decedent’s estate

To confirm that a requester is an authorized person, the requester is mandated to sign a statement, under penalty of perjury, that they are authorized to receive a regular certified copy.

How Much Does a Death Certificate Cost in California?

Typically, a death certificate in California costs $21 for each copy requested from CDPH-Vital Records. However, the processing fee may vary for death certificates requested at County Recorders’ Offices and County Health Departments. For instance, death certificates in Alameda county cost $23 per copy while in most counties, the fee is $21.

The California Department of Public Health provides a list of County Recorders and County Health Departments with their addresses, websites, and contact details. Contact the applicable custodian to confirm the cost of obtaining a death certificate in a specified county. Note that additional charges may apply to cover the cost of shipping and other nominal charges that arise during the request or delivery process.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Death Certificate in California?

The time it takes to process a death certificate request in the CDPH-Vital Records ranges from three to four and a half weeks. The length of time is determined by the year of the record and the type of request. If requesting death records for any year between 1905 to date, third-party electronic submissions range from three to three and a half weeks, while mail-in death record requests for that period range from four to four and a half weeks, A request at the county level takes much less time to process, although it can take as much as 15 days for mail-in requests.

How Long to Keep Records After Death

There is no fixed law indicating how long a death record should be kept after a person's death. However, the IRS statute of limitations for an audit of a tax return is typically three years. This implies that a decedent’s tax returns may be randomly audited for the next three years after death and the death record will be required during this process. It is advisable to keep all financial records for a minimum of seven years before disposing them. On the other hand, a death certificate may be kept for as long as possible as evidence of the date of death. This is because a death certificate can always come in handy for official purposes.

How to Expunge Your Death Records in California?

Expungement refers to a legal order that authorizes the complete removal of specific records of a particular event. When a record is expunged, it is treated as though it never occurred. Expungement is important to remove certain information that is considered sensitive. The law does not make any provisions for the expungement of death records in California.

How to Seal Your Death Records in California?

According to the Deceased Child Victims’ Protection and Privacy Act, the sealing of death records is only available to legal guardians. This also extends to other qualifying family members who request that the autopsy reports and medical records relating to the murder of their children below 18 years old be permanently sealed from public inspection. Note that a request to seal such death record can only be made by a family member who was not involved in the child’s death. However, the record can become public if it is ever presented as evidence in a trial.

The Act was passed to restrict reporters and the general public’s access to an autopsy report if it is sealed. However, it does not limit access by prosecutors, law enforcement agents, defendants, and civil litigants under state and federal discovery laws.

To seal such records, contact the District Attorney’s Office with jurisdiction over the crime, after which a date will be fixed for hearing at the court. In a case where there is an opposition against the sealing of the record, the opposing party shall notify all other qualifying family members, the medical examiner’s office that carried out the autopsy, and the District Attorney’s Office with jurisdiction over the crime. This must be done at least 10 court days before the hearing.

During the hearing, the court deliberates over the following:

  • The interests of all qualifying family members;
  • Any evidence brought before the court;
  • The protection of the deceased child’s memory;
  • The public interest in the investigation of the autopsy report or the performance of the medical examiner; and
  • Any effect that the unsealing would have on unresolved investigations or unresolved legal proceedings and other relevant factors.

After the hearing, the court may decide within the boundaries of the law to limit the dissemination of an autopsy report or evidence connected with the examination of a victim. Consequently, a medical examiner may decline a request to provide a copy of an autopsy report that has been sealed. However, this does not apply if a public agency has independently determined that the autopsy report may not be made public.

Note that the sealing of an autopsy report and other related medical reports does not limit the public’s access to other information contained in a death certificate including name, date, time and location of death, age, gender, race. Accessible details also include the name of the physician reporting the death, the name of the certifying pathologist, date of certification, burial information, and cause of death.

How to Unseal Your Death Records in California?

There are no laws in California that indicate that death records may be unsealed in the state.