Autopsy report vs. death certificate: What’s the difference?

No amount of compensation can replace the loss of your loved one. However, a wrongful death claim might put you and your family in a better financial position.

Compensation for wrongful death may include money for medical bills, funeral expenses, the loss of the financial contributions of your lost loved one to your household, and more.

First, the family must prove that another party was responsible for the accident that led to the decedent’s injuries. The cause of death is often an important piece of evidence, requiring the review of the autopsy report and the death certificate.

Keep reading to learn the importance and difference between these two pieces of evidence and how they might impact your wrongful death claim. An experienced Chicago wrongful death attorney from Horwitz, Horwitz & Associates is available to review your case. 

Call us at (800) 985-1819 or schedule a consultation below.

autopsy report vs death certificate

Difference #1: The purpose of the document

One of the biggest differences between a death certificate and an autopsy report is the intended purpose of each document. 

A death certificate (also called a “medical certificate of death”) is a document that certifies, or proves, that someone is deceased. Among other things, a death certificate may be needed for the following:

  • Providing proof to a financial institution that the account holder has passed so the accounts may be distributed and closed
  • Providing proof to an insurance company that the insured or policy holder has passed so that the beneficiary may claim the account
  • The probate court may require that the certificate be filed

A medical examiner’s report, often called an autopsy report or postmortem report, is a thorough report that details the pathology reports and the results of the examination of the body. The autopsy will detect or rule out injuries or diseases, to determine the cause and manner of death, and may find evidence relevant to the manner in which the decedent passed. The most common uses of autopsy reports are:

  • Use in a wrongful death, survival action, or other civil lawsuit
  • Use in a criminal proceeding 
  • Providing to a life insurance company for determination if the life insurance benefits may be paid out pursuant to the policy terms

Although an autopsy report may be very difficult to review because of the nature of the document and its findings, it can serve as a vital piece of evidence in a wrongful death or survival action. You can only collect compensation in such a case if you can prove that the death of your loved one was caused by someone or something, like medical negligence or an accident. Having an accurate cause of death through a verified autopsy could make the difference between collecting what you are entitled to, or your family having to cover the associated costs out of your household budget

Difference #2: The preparation of the document

Death certificate

There are two steps to preparing a death certificate in Illinois. First, the funeral director completes the decedent’s information on the certificate using information obtained from the next of kin or other qualified source. After completion, the funeral director provides the certificate to the person responsible for completing the medical certification of the cause of death. Ultimately, the funeral director will file the certificate after the medical portion is completed.

The medical certification portion of a death certificate states the cause of death. If the death occurred under a physician’s charge or attendance and isn’t subject to a coroner’s or medical examiner’s investigation (autopsy), then the treating physician, their associate physician, the chief medical officer of the institution, or the physician who performed the autopsy will sign the medical certificate. 

If a death didn’t occur under medical attendance or is otherwise subject to a coroner’s or medical examiner’s investigation, like if the death occurred under suspicious circumstances or in a homicide, then a thorough investigation and analysis will be performed by a medical examiner or a coroner, who will then prepare their medical certificate.

Autopsy report

Unlike a death certificate, an autopsy report is only prepared by the physician, coroner, or medical examiner who performed the autopsy. The report is separate from the death certificate and will not be provided with a requested death certificate. 

Difference #3: Obtaining the records

Death certificates are private documents that may only be available to those persons who have a personal or property rights interest with the decedent. The Department of Public Health (DPH), Division of Vital Records, maintains the completed death certificate that contains the information obtained by the funeral director and the medically certified cause of death.  

There are two different types of death certificates: certified copies that can be used for all legal purposes, and uncertified copies. Uncertified copies are plain paper copies that are not useful for legal purposes but may be used for your own personal records or for genealogy.  

The death certificate that can be obtained from the IDPH outlines the following information of the decedent:

  • Name, date of birth, and other general identifying information including their parents’ names
  • County and place of death, including the name of the institution if applicable
  • The name of the funeral home, their license information, and the disposition of the decedent
  • Cause of death and information related to the death such as if it was the result of an accident, or the length of time between the decedent’s diagnosis of a condition or disease and their death (if it was caused by that condition)

A medical examiner’s report, called a postmortem report in some counties, is a publicly available document through the Medical Records Department of the Office of the Medical Examiner where the examination was done. Each department has a different protocol for obtaining the records, so you or your attorney should call the department if you need a copy of the report.

Did you lose a loved one in an accident that wasn’t their fault? We can help. 

The wrongful death claims process begins with gathering evidence about the cause of the accident and the full extent of the associated costs and injuries. Then, a claim must be drafted and filed within the time allowed to the appropriate insurance company, followed by successful negotiation or lawsuit.

Working with a Chicago wrongful death lawyer will provide you with the support you need every step of the way, from gathering evidence to collecting the compensation that you’re entitled to. 

Reach out now to connect with Horwitz, Horwitz & Associates to schedule a consultation or call (800) 985-1819.