The Death Certificate Saga [Updated]

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This is a rant story about how it’s been more than four months since Allan died and I still don’t have his death certificate.

First, a quick explanation as to why this matters: the death certificate is the thing that you need before you can convince student loan companies that they won’t ever get their money, before you can turn your joint checking account into a single checking account, and before you can transfer the title of your husband’s car into your name, to name a few. It’s basically the key to making all the awful paperwork and administrative crap you need to do when your spouse dies go away for good.

So, the funeral home submitted all the paperwork (correctly) right after Allan passed away, and told me that it takes 4-6 weeks for them to get it back and then they send it to me. Cool. After six weeks had passed, I called them to follow up. They said they actually had it in the office, but they didn’t think they should send it to me because it has an error on it and they’re the ones who have to resubmit it for corrections.

What’s the error? Someone at the TN Department of Health had whited out my last name and typed Lutes (Allan’s last name) over it in the line for “informant.” I have no idea why. No one I’ve spoken to has any idea why. I’ve never been Jasmine Lutes, but maybe someone thought I should have been?

On September 2, the funeral home submits the form for what’s now called an Amendment to the death certificate. As I understand it, it goes from the funeral home to the county Dept. of Health, and then on to the state office in Nashville. However, it’s no longer handled by the same people who made the mistake: now it’s in the hands of Vital Records.

Since early October, I’ve called and left three or four voicemails for Vital Records that were never returned. I spoke to someone at the county health department twice, at which point they just confirmed that they had a record of the amendment being submitted and that’s about it.

The mayor and Senator Corker were both at Allan’s funeral and sincerely offered help if I needed it, so at the urging of friends, I called both offices (this is actually more of a constituent service than a personal favor, so anyone can call and ask for help). Tuesday, November 17th was the mayor, and and Friday was the senator. Staff members in both offices were super friendly and helpful, of course.

Magically, last week was the first time I ever got a call back from anyone at Vital Records. I spoke with someone named Pam, who, while nice, was also pretty much completely unhelpful. She couldn’t tell me what the delay was, where my amendment was in the queue, or when it was expected to be completed. When she suggested that I write a letter explaining the issue, get it notarized, and send it in with the copy of my birth certificate, I paused.

I said [paraphrasing], “Wait, why would I need a copy of my birth certificate?”She said, “To show your maiden name, since you weren’t born in Tennessee and we don’t have it on record.” I said, “Pam, there is no maiden name. Lutes is incorrect, and my last name is Zick. I’ve only had one name.” She said, “Your maiden name is the one you had before you were married.” I said, “Pam. PAM. I have only ever had one last name. I have never changed it. Zick was, is, and will always be my last name.”

WOW. She says, “Ohhhh. Well in that case, you don’t need to send in a copy of your birth certificate. A notarized letter should be fine. You can send it to my attention and I’ll get it taken care of.” While I appreciate the effort, in no other setting would it be acceptable to ask the customer/grieving widow to handle more paperwork and mail that in to resolve their issue. Normally, in basically any business, if you mess something up, you make it a priority to fix it and then let the customer know the status of the issue you’re trying to resolve. But this isn’t business. This is government.

Today, I spoke with the staff member from Senator Corker’s office who can help me and try to figure out what’s going on over there. I filled out another form, this one (pictured above) a privacy release form so they can get into the records if needed. Thank goodness they at least know about emailing and scanning things. Godspeed.

Unfortunately, this saga isn’t quite at an end. I’m just so freaking sick of having to deal with things like this. If I never had to call another stranger at a company or government office and tell them that my husband died, I’d be totally fine with that.

UPDATE: The saga actually has come to an end, thank goodness. After a couple more frustrating calls with Vital Records, I finally received it in the beginning of December.

It’s still unclear what exactly happened, who was responsible for it, and what I could have done differently. There is apparently no accountability in the chain of custody from the funeral home to county to state offices.

I only really had the energy to fight this battle once I had gotten a few other stressful things off my plate, so I can’t imagine what it is like for others who are in worse situations than I am in. I also couldn’t have done it alone–so many people helped and encouraged me. I want to give a special shout-out to Kelly in Senator Corker’s office, who also followed up with me to make sure the situation had been resolved.

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