A History of Unfair Death Certificate Fees in Utah

Eddie August Schneider 1911-1940 death certificate from autopsy.

Eddie August Schneider 1911-1940 death certificate from autopsy.

In 2009, Joyce Mitchell — the President of Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA) of Utah — altered the legal history of the funeral industry in that state to the benefit of the deceased and family members. A 2006 law was repealed that forced the hand of Utah families, making the deceased the virtual property of the funeral industry. This law made it illegal for anyone but a commercial funeral director to sign and file a death certificate.

With this law, funeral directors could charge families any price for a death certificate as well as for the funeral. In 2009, consumer advocates and casketmakers David and Marcia Roble joined Mitchell to successfully lobby for a bill to preserve citizens’ rights to conduct a funeral without interference from the commercial funeral industry.

While consumer advocates for the funeral industry belived that all barriers to family-directed funerals were eliminated, they discovered that Utah county health departments were charging fees for death certificates that ranged from $100 to $300. Additionally, the counties did not charge funeral directors to file this paperwork.

According to the FCA, Utah County Vital Records Deputy, Andrea Schoell, seemed to believe that filing a death certificate was a complicated process. Her department processed three death certificates since the law changed, and each certificate took a total of 45 minutes to process, including calling the doctor to verify the signature on the cause of death. Deputy Health Director Ralph Clegg said the fee is based on a $30-an-hour wage for the clerks.

According to The Salt Lake Tribune:

The fees are clearly unjustified, especially since family members are dealing with so many other demands in their time of grief. The only reason for a city or county to adopt such an unreasonable fee schedule would be to try to force families to use the services of a funeral director, someone local officials are probably used to working with.

But that decision should be left to family members, and they shouldn’t be punished if they choose to have a funeral at home and avoid paying a funeral director to do things they would rather do themselves. At-home childbirth is not discouraged by charging extra fees for filing a birth certificate. The same should be true of Utahns who want to handle a death in the family on their own terms.

Mitchell rounded up families and home funeral activists to testify to the Utah House. David Robles and his wife, Marcia Robles-Racehorse, consumer advocates from the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe in Idaho, were particularly helpful, as were Native American leaders who supportedĀ  HB 265 . The bill passed the House overwhelmingly, and Mitchell found a Senate supporter to shepherd the bill through the senate.

The governor sign the repeal on 20 March 2009, but the process for families to file their own death certificates for family members came with new fees. The Utah County Board of Health agreed in March 2010 to give families more information online about how to file a death certificate, and revisit the fees in September to see if they cover the actual cost of processing the certificates.

According to Mitchell, “You don’t charge women who have a home birth an extra fee to file for a birth certificate, so how can you justify charging families who are caring for their own dead instead of hiring a funeral director?”

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