Declaration of Death

In general, in the US, who has the power to legally declare someone dead? Is it only a certain type of doctor or Medical Examiner (Coroner)? What about a policeman, fireman or EMT?

If an ambulance rolls up to your house and finds someone dead inside, let’s say from natural causes, do they typically haul you to the hospital so you can be declared dead there, or just wait for the ME to show up and declare you dead on the spot?

In most states, a physician must pronouce the person dead at some point.

I do believe hospice nurses can do it in some states, and also medical examiners may have the power in certain circumstances too. But I believe a physician still has to sign the death certificate.

However, there are a lot of states in the US, and I expect a few more variations may exist.

QtM, who hasn’t pronounced anyone dead in at least 6 weeks now.

Florida’s law on the subject: a licensed physician (no residency requirement), coroner, or medical examiner may declare a person dead, and a sheriff, deputy, EMT or other emergency personnel may not.

In theory, anyone can declare a person legally dead. The only issue is whether or not the declarer is immune from (civil) suit in the event that they declare a live person dead, or fix the time incorrectly.

Here in NJ it is obviously acceptable for a home hospice nurse to do so. That’s what happened with my MIL last year. Of course, it was pretty obvious, since she’d been dead for a several hours already, having died in her sleep during the night. And not likely anybody would have filed a lawsuit over it.

Neither, usually. In that sort of situation, the ambulance crew will generally make contact with a medical control physician for a pronouncement. So the doctor technically does the pronouncing, but based on the information from the crew. The service I work for is changing so that in cases of obvious death, the time of death will be when we complete our assessment and our medical director will be the doctor of record.

Also, the causes are irrelevant. If you have signs of obvious and irreversible death, you’re not going to the hospital in most places.

St. Urho
Paramedic