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What’s in a Death Certificate?

A death certificate forms part of the national register of the population of the country and is also an important family record. This article looks at the information needed to produce a complete and accurate death certificate.

A fully and correctly completed death certificate provides an interesting snapshot of a person’s life and is an important element in the recorded history of a family.

When someone dies, the task of registering the death with Births, Deaths and Marriages in New Zealand is usually carried out by the funeral director who has been instructed by the family of the deceased.  If a funeral director’s services are not being used, the death may be registered by the family.  Registration of a death must be done within three days from the date on which the deceased was buried or cremated.

While the details of the medical circumstances of the death (date, place of death, cause of death, name of certifying health practitioner, and date last seen alive by certifying health practitioner) are provided by the certifying health practitioner in a medical certificate of death, much of the other information required to complete the death certificate which is issued by Births, Deaths and Marriages is provided by the family of the deceased.

The information about the deceased which must be provided by the family is:

  • First/given name(s) at death
  • Surname/family name at death
  • First/given name(s) at birth
  • Surname/family name at birth
  • Sex
  • Age at death
  • Date of birth
  • Place of birth
  • Number of years the deceased has lived in New Zealand (if not born in New Zealand)
  • Usual home address
  • Usual occupation/profession/job
  • Age of each daughter living at the deceased’s death
  • Age of each son living at the deceased’s death
  • Details of the deceased’s mother:
  • first/given name(s)
  • surname/family name
  • first/given name(s) at birth
  • surname/family name at birth
  • Details of the deceased’s father:
  • first/given name(s)
  • surname/family name
  • first/given name(s) at birth
  • surname/family name at birth
  • Details of the deceased’s relationship status at the time of death, eg married/widowed/divorced, (includes all previous relationships):
  • type of relationship (marriage/civil union/de facto relationship)
  • age of deceased at date of marriage/civil union
  • place of marriage/civil union
  • first/given name(s) of spouse/partner
  • surname/family name of spouse/partner
  • sex of spouse/partner
  • age of surviving spouse/partner at time of deceased’s death

Other information contained in the death certificate is the date and place of burial or cremation, which the funeral director will obtain in the course of making funeral arrangements.

Sometimes it is not possible to enter a date and cause of death within the timeframe by which the death must be registered.  In such instances, an interim death certificate is issued by Births, Deaths and Marriages, and the cause of death is shown as “subject to coroner’s findings”.

If a person dies and the date of death is not known, or the death is sudden or unexplained, or occurs in special circumstances, the health practitioner completing the medical certificate of death will refer the death to a coroner for investigation.  The coroner will receive a report from the police and decide whether to direct a post-mortem, authorise release of the body, and decide whether to open an inquiry.  If an inquiry is to be opened and conducted, the coroner also decides whether an inquest should be held.

Post-mortem results will enable the coroner to issue an interim certificate of findings as to date and cause of death, and once the coronial investigation has been completed, the coroner will issue a final certificate of findings.

The interim death certificate and the coroner’s final certificate of findings can then be sent to Births, Deaths and Marriages, and a final death certificate can be issued showing the date and cause of death.

Your family members are not necessarily going to be familiar with all of the information which can be included in your death certificate, and even correct spelling of names may be unknown.  It is therefore a good idea to keep all your important family documents such as birth and marriage certificates together in a safe place, and to let the executors of your will, or your next of kin know where they can locate these documents when you die.  If your lawyer holds your will, you could consider giving your other important family documents to your lawyer as well to hold with your will.  This will help to ensure that the details on your death certificate are correct and as complete as possible and simplify the process for your family.


This article is current as at the date of publication and is only intended to provide general comments about the law. Harkness Henry accepts no responsibility for reliance by any person or organisation on the content of the article. Please contact the author of the article if you require specific advice about how the law applies to you.

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