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Showing Proper Respect for Death Certificates

Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law the “Respect After Death Act.” This law requires persons completing a death certificate to report the deceased person’s correct “gender identity.” The law, sponsored by California Assembly Speaker Toni G. Atkins, is designed to clarify the responsibilities of coroners and funeral directors on this subject.

As of January 1, 2015, the new law will require the person preparing a death certificate in California to “record the decedent’s sex to reflect the decedent’s gender identity.” The person reporting the death is responsible for informing the person completing the certificate of the deceased individual’s gender identity, unless presented with another official document, such as a birth certificate or driver’s license, indicating a different gender identity. In such cases, the death certificate must reflect what is on the official document. If there is any disagreement between the official documentation or what the person reporting the death considers the deceased’s gender identity, a “majority of persons” having the legal right to dispose of the person’s remains shall decide the matter.

According to media reports, the Respect After Death Act was prompted by the 2012 death of Christopher Lee, a San Francisco filmmaker who was born female but identified as a male. His death certificate reported his gender as “female,” despite the fact his family provided official documentation noting his gender identity as male. The local coroner said existing law required identification of Lee as female unless he had gender reassignment surgery. Under the new law, that is not necessary.

The Importance of Death Certificates

Death certificates are an essential part of the probate process. A probate court will require an official death certificate before opening an estate and appointing an executor. Many asset holders, such as banks, may also request an official death certificate before releasing an account to the executor or a designated beneficiary.

Only certain people can obtain official (or “certified”) copies of a person’s designate. These people include immediate family, an executor or attorney for the estate, a funeral home director, or a member of law enforcement conducting official business (such as investigating a potential homicide). Other individuals may still obtain an unofficial “informational” copy of a death certificate.

In addition to establishing a person’s name and gender identity, the death certificate contains other information that may be useful during the probate process, such as marital status, date and place of birth, social security number and last known address. The death certificate will also contain any officially determined cause of death, which can prove important if the estate decides to bring a wrongful death action.

Obtaining and managing death certificates are just one thing an executor must manage as part of the probate process. That is why, while you are still living, you should prepare a proper last will and testament that designates an executor you know and trust. If you need advice from an experienced California estate planning attorney, contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady in San Diego today.

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