logo

Reference from Coast to Coast - U.S. Death Records

By Jan Bissett and Margi Heinen, Published on June 14, 2000

Jan Bissett is a Reference Librarian in the Bloomfield Hills, Michigan office of Dickinson Wright PLLC.

Margi Heinen is the Librarian with Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss in Detroit, Michigan.


Bankruptcy bounders, scofflaws, potential heirs. Sometimes we're asked to do a specific type of skip tracing: confirming someone's death. Death records are local or State public records, often referred to as vital records. Where might one start? Several possibilities exist depending upon the information and time on hand.

One of the easiest places to check is the Social Security Death Index. The SSDI provides information (name, county, State and address where benefits were last received) about persons with Social Security numbers whose deaths have been reported to the Social Security Administration. Available on several genealogy websites such as Ancestry.com and also available on Lexis-Nexis® and Westlaw®; the coverage varies - most records cover 1962 to the present, although some records exist from 1937 forward.

If the death is too recent or unreported to the Social Security Administration, you may have to contact the State or locality in which the death occurred. Contacts are listed in Vital Records Information  and the CDC's Where to Write for Vital Records. You may also want to check to see if a particular State's records are available electronically. For example, death records from Connecticut, Georgia and Kentucky are available on lexis.com. Historical death records may also be available via genealogy or state sponsored indexing project websites.

What if you've checked the SSDI with no luck and have no idea where the death may have occurred? Obituaries may provide you with a date and locale. Obituaries may appear in the decedent's hometown newspaper regardless of the place of death. Check with the public library for any specific local sources - such as the Public Libraries of Saginaw [Michigan] Obituaries Index to the Saginaw News. Many newspapers have their own websites that can be searched individually or as a group, often for free or without a subscription. Westlaw® offers OBITPAGE containing obituaries and death notices from Dow Jones Interactive.

Public records vendors such as KnowX.com also provide death records information for a fee. There are many skip tracing/person locator vendors competing for death records dollars: National Credit Information Network, People of America.comPeopleFind.com are a few of these services. So buyer be warned - read web pages carefully and if necessary, call the vendor to determine if their service provides a more in-depth search than one you can do yourself at low or no cost.