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Quite an Undertaking

When a family member dies, accessing bank accounts and collecting on insurance policies requires proper paperwork. Despite a state mandate to process death certificates in a timely fashion, however, doctors are dragging their heels, funeral directors say, leaving survivors in the lurch.

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Steve Martin is used to grief, but the president-elect of the Texas Funeral Directors Association admits that the pre-dawn phone calls still get to him. A grieving widow who’s had her lights turned off. Or can’t get into her late husband’s bank account. Or can't collect on an insurance policy.

Such desperation can add to the overwhelming grief of losing a loved one, and nothing more than a simple bureaucratic snafu is to blame: the failure of doctors to process death certificates in a timely manner. The certificates are required for all manner of basic tasks involved in disentangling the financial affairs of survivors. The Legislature tried to address the issue in 2007 by requiring doctors and funeral directors to make use of an online system meant to expedite the process of completing the legal documentation. But many doctors have ignored the state mandate to use the system, and Martin says he's seen little in the way of enforcement.

“It’s been two and half years, and doctors have been mandated by a law set forth by the state of Texas, and they are still not doing it,” he says. “This is about taking care of the business at hand. Every bank account you have [to close] has to have a certified death certificate. Every insurance policy, Social Security, everything you can think of has to have a certified death certificate.”

The online system is maintained by the Department of State Health Services, and it allows doctors and funeral directors, who are issued secure passwords, to complete their respective parts of the documentation. The law requires that the entire process be completed within 10 days, says DSHS spokesman Christine DeLoma, and that medical providers do their part within the first five days. She adds, however, that it isn’t as simple as a quick back-and-forth. “So many people are involved in the process. The funeral director has to wait on the doctor. The doctor has to wait for the funeral director, then has to wait on the local registrar. Then the local registrar is supposed to send it to us,” she says.

Meanwhile, relatives place anxious midnight phone calls to Martin and his ilk. "This is not playing on sympathy — this actually happens, and we’re not talking about once or twice. I get this phone call at least once a month,” he says. “Nobody really takes it seriously until somebody like me gets a phone call at 3 o’clock in the morning from a grieving widow who’s had her electricity cut off. She can’t get into the safe deposit box or her bank account because her husband always took care of the business and it was under his name.”

The author of H.B. 1739, state Rep. Will Hartnett, R-Dallas, says he filed the bill to help expedite the process of obtaining birth and death records and that he was “disappointed” to hear about the delays. “Technological innovations always have some laggards,” he says. “I am hoping that this is really an isolated problem, but you never know when you force people onto computers and the internet.”

Charlotte Waldrum, the director of the Chapel of Texas Funeral Home in Irving, says she encounters the problem about 25 percent of the time but that it’s not always an aloof or insensitive doctor at fault. “The doctors are seeming to have problem with the system,” she says. “An electronic glitch somewhere or a doctor who's not sure it’s his death certificate happens more often.”

The Texas Medical Association is in the process of re-educating its members about the requirement, says Kelly Walla, the organization’s associate general counsel. The effort is a response to more than 150 recent complaints filed with the Texas Medical Board alleging doctors aren’t following protocol. They face a $500 fine if they are not in compliance.

“It’s just a lot complaints for what’s basically one small issue,” says TMB spokesman Leigh Hopper, who notes that while the problem is not as egregious as “operating on the wrong leg,” it does give grieving families one more obstacle to get around.

“The family needs that death certificate to get that will probated and sometimes even for a cremation to take place,” Hopper says. “And sometimes the doctor will tell the funeral home, 'Well, unless you bring over the paper form, you are not going to get it. You are going to have to drive it over.’”

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