Getting a legal pronouncement of death | Empathy
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Getting a legal pronouncement of death

Key takeaways about death pronouncements


  • If your loved one passes away at the hospital or in hospice care, this will be taken care of for you.

  • If they passed away at home, call their doctor, who will advise you on next steps.

  • Otherwise, call a funeral home, or contact the local coroner, medical examiner, or health department directly.

  • You do not have to move the body yourself, and it is OK to wait several hours to call.

  • In general, only doctors or coroners can make a legal pronouncement of death.


A loved one’s passing is a deeply emotionally impactful event. But it’s everything that comes after the event that can make it feel so much harder. Not only are you grieving their loss, but now there is also the burden of dealing with their final arrangements, adding stress and pressure to an already difficult time. 

The very first practical step you must take is to get a legal pronouncement of your loved one’s death. If they died while in a hospital or hospice, this process will be handled by the institution’s staff. But if they passed away at home, you will have to make these arrangements yourself. (If their passing was sudden or unexpected, however, it is best to call 911 immediately.)

First of all, there is no need to move the body if you do not choose to. If the death occurred in the middle of the night, you may not even need to call anyone until morning. If your loved one was an adherent of a religion that requires certain preparations soon after death, this is the time to call their clergy or other community members to come over and begin those rituals. This may also be a fitting time to call family members who might want to sit with your loved one and say goodbye.

When they are ready to get the legal pronouncement of death, many people contact their loved one’s physician first. Their doctor will know their medical history, be intimately acquainted with how best to proceed in your locality, and will advise you on the next steps. If you aren’t certain of who your loved one’s doctor was, you may want to contact a funeral home, which will connect you with the proper authority to come make a death pronouncement. The funeral home will also be a knowledgeable resource and assist you in moving forward through this difficult time. Another option is to contact your local medical examiner, coroner, or health department’s office directly so that they will send someone to make the legal pronouncement.

When a doctor or coroner makes the pronouncement of death, they may ask if an autopsy is desired. People generally only proceed with an autopsy if there is evidence of trauma, if the death occurred in unusual circumstances, or if it was in any way unexpected.

Acquiring the legal pronouncement of death is an important step, and generally one that can only be performed by a doctor or coroner, not, for instance, ambulance EMTs. However, some states allow for registered nurses or even paramedics to give a pronouncement of death, depending on the person’s care setting.

After this is done, one may go on to certify the death, which is a separate step after the pronouncement. Certification involves determining the cause of death and signing the death certificate. These certificates are usually obtained for a fee through the funeral home, but can be purchased from the county. The death certificate is a crucial legal document for a variety of purposes such as petitioning for probate, filing final tax returns, dealing with life insurance, burial and cremation, transferring financial and retirement accounts, vehicle title transfers, and dealing with debtors. We recommend requesting multiple death certificates, as many organizations require an original certificate rather than a photocopy or electronic scanned version.

The immediate aftermath of a loved one’s passing can be one of the most difficult and confusing times in our lives. These few necessary steps, once gotten out of the way, will ensure that everything happens correctly in the coming days, so that you can turn your attention to planning a fitting memorial, gathering with family and friends, and processing all the emotions that come with such a difficult loss ●

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Immediate Arrangements

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Soon after a loved one’s passing, there are some time-sensitive tasks that will need to be taken care of. Many things can wait until you’re more ready, but there are a few that will need attention quickly. We’re here to guide you every step of the way.

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