The often painstaking process of handling administrative matters after a loved one dies starts with a single data-driven document: the death certificate. What is a death certificate, how many do you need and why? You will need this important document to both collect benefits and close accounts. Without one, many institutions – banks, life insurance companies, investment firms – have no obligation to even talk to you.

What is a death certificate?

A death certificate is a state-issued document that details the date, time, location and cause of death. A medical practitioner and funeral director sign off on the certificate, which also includes personal information such as age, address, birth place, occupation, marital status, race, surviving spouse’s name, and highest level of education. Public health officials use the data points to track mortality trends.

Why you even need death certificates

How many death certificates will you need? It depends largely on the complexity of the decedent’s financial affairs. A simple estate may require as few as 10. Something more involved could necessitate twice that amount. If you are serving as the administrator, personal representative or executor for a decedent’s estate, you’ll likely be the person sending these out. Be sure to ask which institutions will require an original certified copy with an embossed seal and which will accept copies that you can make yourself.

Who gets a copy of the death certificate

At minimum, you will need a death certificate to file for benefits, close accounts or otherwise file with these institutions:

  1. Social Security
  2. life insurance
  3. military benefits
  4. health care insurance
  5. credit card companies
  6. closing cellphone account
  7. Internal Revenue Service
  8. state income tax department
  9. banks
  10. legal representation during probate
  11. utility companies
  12. brokerage firms
  13. pension plan funds
  14. mortgage lenders
  15. motor vehicle administration
  16. creditors
  17. post office (for mail forwarding if the deceased lived alone)
  18. Some states require a copy of the death certificate if the surviving spouse remarries
  19. Equifax (to prevent identity theft)
  20. Experian (same)
  21. TransUnion (same)

Death certificates aren’t cheap

Now that you know what a death certificate is and what it does, you can see you’ll need more than one copy. But they aren’t free – the cost of a death certificate ranges from $5 to $34, depending on the state of residence. You can order them from your funeral director, the local health department, or online at . Generally, the first certified copy costs a set amount with additional copies ordered at the same time sold at a discount – so it’s cheaper to order them in bulk up front than to go back later and request more. Note: Third-party providers like VitalChek and Online Vitals charge a service fee as do many funeral homes.

A pretty good rule of thumb is to order at least two more than you think you’ll need – our experts recommend ordering at least 20. It’s not unheard of for a life insurance policy or a long forgotten retirement plan account to surface months, even years, after a death. Just take care to keep these valuable documents in a secure place.