Overview of Unattended Death Laws in California

Hopefully, you make it through life without facing the prospect of sorting out the ins and outs of unattended death laws in California. Nevertheless, as is the case with many things in life, you are wise to have a basic understanding of something that might not be likely but that certainly is possible. You are provided an overview of the California Code as it pertains to unattended deaths of all types in the state.

Understanding the Two Types of Unattended Deaths Pursuant to California Law

The concept of an unattended death can prove to be confusing. The primary reason for this confusion rests in the fact that California law speaks to different scenarios when the term “unattended death” is utilized.

The legal term unattended death is most frequently used in a situation in which a person has died unattended by a physician under a specific set of circumstances (which are enumerated fully in a moment). The second manner in which unattended death is used is in a situation in which a person dies alone and his or her remains are not found for an extended period of time. In this scenario, a person’s remains might not be found for days, weeks, or even months.

Unattended Death Laws: Absence of Physician

The California Code permits a physician to certify the cause of death of a person in his or her care even if the death occurs outside of the physician’s presence. This type of certification presumes that the physician has seen the individual within a period of 20 days before the death. This type of scenario is one in which a person happens to die alone but the death is promptly discovered.

Oftentimes, obtaining the certification of an absent physician proves unnecessary because when the death is discovered, emergency medical personnel are dispatched to the scene and the individual is taken to a hospital, where an official pronouncement of death can occur and a death certificate issue. These types of situations typically involve a person who has died from an illness, disease, or condition for which he or she previously was diagnosed by a physician.

Another scenario involves an individual in hospice care, typically home hospice care. Provided that an individual dies in home hospice care without a physician present has been seen by a physician or registered nurse within 20 days prior to death, the involvement of the coroner typically is unnecessary. This scenario also presumes that the person died from a previously diagnosed illness, disease, or condition.

In a scenario involving home hospice care, California law permits an attending physician to come to the home after a patient has passed, official pronounce death and then issue a death certificate. The law permits the bot body of the deceased to be transported directly to a funeral home by funeral home staff.

Unattended Death Laws: Absence of Timely Discovery of Remains

When an unattended death involves a person who dies with no one around and a delay in the discovery of the remains, California unattended death laws mandate the involvement of both law enforcement and the county coroner in the jurisdiction where the body was discovered. California state law requires the involvement of law enforcement directly after the discovery of the remains from an unattended death to commence a timely investigation as to whether or not the death was the result of some sort of criminal activity. The coroner is involved both to determine the cause of death and to make a recommendation as to whether the death was the result of a natural, accidental, or potentially criminal incident.

The most common causes of these types of unattended deaths are:

  • Accident
  • Disease
  • Suicide
  • Homicide

In addition to complying with the unattended death laws in California in this type of situation, serious attention must also be paid to health and safety concerns. As a result of the human decomposition process, the scene of an unattended death of this type can be contaminated by blood, bodily fluids, and other biological materials. Blood, bodily fluids, and other biological materials can contain hazardous pathogens, viruses, and bacteria that can cause serious and even fatal diseases.

Once the on-scene investigation by law enforcement and the coroner completes, the need for unattended death cleanup arises. Keep in mind that this is far from a simple cleanup job. The level of necessary biohazard remediation at the scene of an unattended death with which the remains were not discovered in a timely manner is profoundly challenging.

The need for professional unattended death cleanup or biohazard remediation is significant. The reality is that a layperson simply does not have the skills, experience, equipment, tools, materials, or safety gear necessary to appropriately address an unaccompanied death cleanup situation.

There is nothing in California unattended death statutes that require professional remediation assistance. With that said, there are laws in the state of California that govern the manner of disposal of biohazardous waste of the kind found at an unattended death scene.

Unattended Death Laws in California and Local Coroners

California statutes make it abundantly clear that county coroners have a fundamental role to play when it comes to an unattended death and a lack of immediate discovery of the remains of the deceased. Specifically, the California Code provides:

“It shall be the duty of the coroner to inquire into and determine the circumstances, manner, and cause of all … unattended deaths …”

The California Code also addresses the other type of unattended death, the type in which death was not attended by a physician. The California Code enumerates what a county coroner must do when a death is not attended by a physician, as described previously. A county coroner must make the same type of inquiry as in the case of an unattended death and lack of immediate discovery of a body.

The first step that a county coroner must take when advised of either type of unattended death is to dispatch a deputy coroner or member of the agency’s investigatory team to the scene of where the deceased individual’s remains are located. The coroner’s office, usually in conjunction with local law enforcement, undertakes an investigation of the scene in order to garner evidence pertaining to the underlying cause of the deceased person’s death.

The operational procedures of all California coroners mandate that the remains of the deceased remain in place until the initial investigation of the death scene is undertaken. At that juncture, California law dictates that the remains shall be transferred from the death scene, in the custody of the coroner’s staff, to the office of the country Coroner.

Upon transport to the county coroner’s office, the coroner typically has custody of the remains of a deceased person for 24 to 48 hours. If necessary, a coroner can extend the period of time to conduct a forensic examination and an autopsy.

During that time period, the coroner undertakes a basic forensic examination, draws blood and tissue samples as needed, and undertakes an autopsy if necessary. In the case of an unattended death, an autopsy typically is required to gather all the evidence necessary to make a determination regarding the cause of that death.

Other types of testing, including those designed to detect the presence of chemicals and other substances in the blood, can take a more significant amount of time. Generally, these types of testing cannot be performed at a local coroner’s office. State law mandates that they are undertaken at appropriately certified laboratories in the state of California. Results from these types of tests can take six weeks or even longer to obtain.

Once a county coroner completes the forensic evaluation and autopsy of the remains of the deceased who dies an unattended death, the family is notified of the completion of that process. California law, regulations, and local practices of coroners throughout the state permit a family or other responsible party 72 hours to have the remains transported from the coroner’s office. If a family, or other responsible parties, cannot make arrangements for transport within the 72-hour time frame, California law does permit a county coroner discretion to allow a family additional time to have the remains transported. The law also allows a coroner to charge a family, or other responsible parties, a fee for keeping the remains at the coroner’s office beyond the 72-hour mark.

California Law Regarding Death Certificates and an Unattended Death

California law governs the manner in which a death certificate is issued following an unattended death. The law recognizes two important factors. First, a family or estate of a deceased person needs a death certificate promptly in order to address the affairs of the deceased person. Second, a county coroner may not be able to promptly ascertain the cause of death. As mentioned previously, there are unattended deaths that require additional laboratory tests of blood and the exact cause of death may not be available for some time.

California permits a county coroner to issue one of three types of death certificates when it comes to an unattended death situation:

  • The death certificate that lists the cause of death
  • The death certificate that lists the cause of death as pending
  • The death certificate that lists the cause of death as inconclusive

Because of this trio of options, a county coroner is able to issue a death certificate following an unattended death in a timely manner directly after the initial forensic examination and an autopsy is completed. California law permits the death certificate to be updated at a later date when the results of laboratory testing become available.

Evading California Unattended Death Laws

A recurring issue is the matter of people attempting to evade California unattended death laws. Indeed, the evasion of laws regarding both attended and unattended deaths in California has been and continues to be rather a serious issue in the state.

A widely publicized example of medical personnel and family members of a deceased person attempting to evade reporting and other requirements associated with death-related laws involves the passing of flamboyant pianist and performer Liberace. (At the height of his career, Liberace was the highest paid entertainer in the world.) A concerted effort was made by the heirs of Liberace, his publicity team, and his doctor to hide the actual cause of his death.

The doctor issued a death certificate that stated Liberace died of heart failure associated with a watermelon diet. In fact, Liberace died from complications associated with AIDS.

Although the Liberace case did not involve an unattended death, it exemplifies what the law allows a coroner to do when evidence suggests that an evasion of California death-related laws are occurring or have occurred. For example, the coroner has the authority to take custody of a body and undertake forensics testing and even an autopsy (which is what happened in the matter of Liberace’s death). A coroner is even vested with legal authority pursuant to the California Code to exhume a body if the evidence is found that an effort was made to evade the requirements of death-related statutes, including an examination by the coroner.

What is likely the most common situation in which a family will attempt to evade the reporting requirements of an unattended death is when a loved one commits suicide. In a decent number of cases, these families are able to enlist the assistance of a doctor to sign off on a death certificate when the coroner should have been contacted.

The California Code classifies this type of avoidance of death-related laws as criminal conduct. It is a misdemeanor and potentially can result in a fine or even a term in the county jail. A doctor who participates in evading unattended death laws in California can face sanctions by the Medical Board of California.