Assigning an official date of death.

Relatively quick question, probably easily answered by someone in the right field.

If someone dies and the body is not found for some time after death, how is the date (and time) of death determined for official records? Is it done based on a doctor’s or coroner’s best estimate? Or is the day the body is found allocated as the day of death?

My uncle died in a boating accident and was not found for three days. His date of death was declared the day the accident had happened, not the day he was found.

Sorry to hear about your uncle, Lissa.

Thanks for the response. The answer was pretty much what i expected, i guess.

Sometimes the date/time of death can’t be established.

But often it can.

For example, heat loss from a body occurs at a steady and predictable rate. So, measuring the corpse’s temperature can help determine the time of death.

For bodies found outdoors, where insects have been very much involved in the decomposition (!), the type of insect/eggs found on the body is related to the time since death - certain insects are present only after certain periods of time since death.

For relatively recent deaths, the presence or absence of rigor (stiffness) also helps. I can’t remember the details, but rigor occurs only during a particular interval after death. So, if present, rigor narrows down the time of death considerably.

An ex-girlfriend of mine is in the field Karl references: Forensic Entymology. They can be pretty precise with the time of death based on larval development.

A former colleague of mine died in his house and was not found for several months; the precise date of death could not be determined; for certain legal purposes, the date of discovery of his body was assumed as the date of death (even though it was plainly obvious that he hadn’t died that day) - for example, his estate was liable for payment of standing charges on utilities up until the date when he was found.

My dad died recently; though the medical examiner thought he had died on the evening of July 4th, the date and time of death are listed as “early AM July 5th” (when he was found).

Thanks J P.

Sorry about your dad.

Mangetout, that’s interesting. I had never considered the possible legal/financial ramifications of assigning a date of death.

Consider the following scenario: a wealthy widower with an adult son marries a widow with an adult daughter. The widower revises his will (previously leaving everything to his son) to now divide his estate between his son and new wife, or all to one of them should the other predecease him. The wife’s will, leaving everything to her daughter, is unchanged.

The married couple go for a remote mountain drive, crash, and their bodies are found three months later. If the man died first, one could argue, half his estate went to his wife, and that half went to her daughter when the wife died. If, however, the wife died first, the entire estate is left to the son. How would a probate court untangle it?

The same thing is going on with me right now. My mother was taken to the hospital on the 17th. For the next couple of days she was kept on life support so that the family could come in. On the 20th she had her organs harvested. I would have thought that she would be “dead” on the 20th, but the death certificate states the 18th, only a few hours after she had been brought in to the hospital.

This sets up some strange things in Maryland because anyone who has a claim to the estate has exatcly six months to file a claim. So those couple of days, or months in some cases could be very important.

German law has a clear regulation on this: If the time of death can’t be determined in cases like these, it is assumed that the victims died simultaneously.