From birth to death, the government tracks everyone in the U.S. While the government needs this information for taxing, budgeting and other purposes, citizens depend on vital records for all manner of financial transactions.

That includes survivors of spouses or other family members who have passed on. Missing records are bad enough, but the impact can be much worse for elderly people whose financial resources are already strained.

Processing for a death certificate typically begins with a funeral director, who collects family information and enters it in Oregon’s electronic reporting system. The report must be signed by an attending physician or the local medical examiner for unattended deaths before it is ready to be recorded by the Oregon Health Authority.

After a death is registered, the information is transmitted to the county health department for printing to create an official death certificate. Spouses or family members must present this document at banks and other financial offices to access accounts.

Vital records office

Current Oregon law states that processing of a registered certificate “should” be completed within five days of the time of death, according to Jennifer Woodward, a section manager at the Oregon Health Authority’s Center for Health Statistics, Vital Records and Certificates.

The processing time in January, however, averaged 12.7 days, Woodward said. The longer time could be related to delays by funeral directors or physicians filling out the appropriate forms, a challenge she characterized as statewide, not regional.

The state’s vital records office has certified 6.5 million records since it was established in 1903. Last year, the office certified 35,000 deaths, about 3,100 per month, Woodward said. Records for deaths and marriages are kept confidential for 50 years, while birth records remain confidential for 100 years, she said.

An electronic system is used to process death statistics, and about 90 percent of funeral directors and physicians use the system, Woodward said. But there are no penalties for delays.

“The main message to physicians is that this is the last important thing they can do for families,” Woodward said.

Delays and hardships

Delays in obtaining a death certificate can create a hardship for survivors, especially those already struggling on a fixed retirement income. Spouses often have joint ownership or accounts for banking, trusts, pensions, life insurance, homes, personal property and utility bills.

Claude Baker, whose wife, Bobetta, passed away Feb. 26, said it took 16 days before he received a death certificate. He said he was told that much time wasn’t uncommon and the delay might have to do with getting the attending doctor’s signature on the death report so it could be sent to the Oregon Health Authority.

In Baker’s case, his wife’s Social Security checks were automatically deposited at a bank in California, and the bank froze the joint account not long after she passed away. The bank sent him forms to fill out so he could access the account, but he lacked the death certificate needed to be sent with the forms.

Baker said he and his wife had established a living will and trust and he had power of attorney, but he said it took the assistance of a senior nurse at Blue Mountain Hospital to “break the logjam” and expedite the process.

Local medical examiner

April Bieber resigned as Grant County medical examiner on Feb. 22. As a result, Grant County currently does not have a medical examiner to handle unattended deaths, “nor are there any immediate or apparent prospects for appointing one,” Grant County District Attorney Jim Carpenter told the Eagle.

According to state law, “the local health officer shall temporarily act as medical examiner in cooperation with the chief medical examiner until the vacancy is filled.” The chief medical examiner is a position within the Oregon State Police, currently based in Clackamas.

The Oregon Health Authority lists Dr. David Hall, a provider at Blue Mountain Hospital, as the local health officer, Carpenter said. Hall served as the Grant County medical examiner in the past but “has declined to fill the role of medical examiner during this vacancy,” Carpenter said.

State law provides that in cases where the positions of local health officer and district medical examiner are both vacant, “the district attorney shall temporarily act as medical examiner in cooperation with the chief medical examiner until the vacancy is filled.”

On April 23, Carpenter told the Grant County Court that the state medical examiner’s office had taken on the role of local medical examiner but wasn’t generally available to travel to Grant County. The office asked the court to appoint additional death investigators to assist them.

At the time, Sheriff Glenn Palmer was the only appointed certified death investigator in Grant County. On May 8, the court agreed to appoint Gretchen Ladd, who is the district attorney in Wheeler County with a home in Canyon City, and former John Day Police Chief Richard Tirico.

Ladd was already certified, but Tirico would need training that could cost the county $1,157. A death investigator typically looks into factors relating to deaths other than medical causes.

Preventive measures

There’s not much a person can do to expedite death certificates, but people can plan ahead for the time when a spouse or family member falls ill and when they die.

Estate planning, drawing up a will and drawing up papers giving another person power of attorney needs to be done ahead of time. Choosing an executor to handle financial affairs after a person has died also needs to be done ahead of time. People should contact an attorney for proper detailed advice on these matters.

Baker said his biggest problem was that immediately after his wife passed away, the Social Security Administration contacted the credit union in San Jose, California, and froze her account. The agency even requested that her last check be returned, he said.

But once he sent the proper documents, the bank account was unlocked right away.

“It was an inconvenience for us,” he said. “But for others, it could be a catastrophe.”

Richard Hanners is a reporter for the Blue Mountain Eagle. He can be contacted at rick@bmeagle.com or 541-575-0710.

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