Zoe-Anne Barcellos:

Legally, you are not dead until someone says you are dead.

You can be pronounced or declared dead. Each state in the USA has its own statutes that cover this. Typically a doctor or nurse can pronounce, and everyone else (police officers, EMTs, firefighters) will declare death.

One of the hardest parts of my job is estimating the PMI, or the Post Mortem Interval. This is the amount of time that has elapsed since a person's biological processes have stopped and they were pronounced dead.

We use several methods to determine this—rigor mortis, algor mortis, palor mortis, stage of decomposition, insect activity, etc. But they are all an educated guess, and most coroners or medicolegal death investigators will tell you “sometime between the last credible witness of when they were alive and when they were pronounced.”

But any estimate given is in a time span of several hours to days. It is not like TV and movies where they narrow it down to minutes.

But the time listed on your death certificate is the time you were pronounced. If you were in the hospital, this most likely will be at, or very close to, the time your biological processes stopped, i.e. your heart stopped beating or breathing stopped. It could also be when you are declared “brain dead.” Brain death requires several specific tests, and it usually has to be done by more than one physician.

If you are not in the hospital at the time of your death, then it will be when someone finds you.

This can cause some legal issues with regard to inheritance, but that is usually determined in court. The death certificate will not be amended, as your time of death is when you are pronounced.

For example, neighbors report to police the sound of a gunshot. Police go and find Joe Brown with a SIGSW (self-inflicted gun shot wound), he is still warm and it is obvious that this just occurred. Medics come in and declare the death at 07:30 hours. Police are investigating the scene and several hours later find his wife decomposing in the basement (or solidly frozen in a freezer). Police don’t even call in medics, they declare her at that time. The wife’s time of death will be on the same date at 10:45. Obviously she has been dead much longer, but the time of death on the death certificate is when she was found.

Now let us assume they are wealthy, and both have children from earlier marriages. Then you can have a whole legal battle on your hands!

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