Under the law, what happens if a homeless person is found dead and nobody knows who it is?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

State laws require coroners and medical examiners to investigate unexplained deaths and deaths that are likely to have resulted from a crime (attack, illegal drug use, etc…).[1]  So, if you die outside, in an abandoned building, or at a shelter or anyplace else outside of a hospital without having had a recently treated medical condition, the coroner or medical examiner will have to figure out the cause of your death. This might be a quick death scene evaluation where they can quickly determine that the victim died of exposure or it might be a longer investigation at the coroner or medical examiner’s lab.

In connection with determining the cause of death and issuing a death certificate, the coroner or medical examiner typically has a legal obligation to identify the person who has died.[2]   This might involve going through the decedent’s possessions, accessing police records, tracing dental records, searching through databases of missing persons,[3] tracing DNA…  The state’s “disposition of body” or “vital records/ death certificates” law will likely list some investigative steps for coroners and ME’s needing to identify bodies.  If the law does not list investigative steps, the guidelines for these investigations could arise from coroners’ professional standards published by the state coroners’ or medical examiners’ professional association or else an internal policy manual for the particular county coroner or medical examiner’s office.[4] 

State laws use the phrase “unclaimed dead bodies” to refer to people who have died without identification and whose remains have not been collected by relatives or others prepared to provide for burial or other final disposition.  These laws, which are typically in the statutory code’s “health and safety” category tell when and how to dispose of the unclaimed remains.  Some states require burial or cremation at government expense.[5]  Some allow the state’s anatomical board to regulate disposal of the body.[6]  Some allow the bodies to be donated for medical research.[7]  Note that medical examiners post information about unclaimed dead bodies in the National Unclaimed Persons Data System.


[1] Find those state laws through Justia, Cornell’s Legal Information Institute, or even using a search engine with terms like “California law coroner.”

[2] Sample laws:

Pennsylvania –  35 PS 450.506.1
“Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, no certificate of death or fetal death shall be issued in this Commonwealth if the body or fetal remains have not been positively identified unless the person issuing the certificate of death first obtains a DNA sample and submits the same to the Pennsylvania State Police for storage, for forensic DNA analysis, including nuclear and mitochondrial DNA typing, and for inclusion in any appropriate DNA database…”

Washington –  Rev. C. Wash 43.43.770

“It shall be the duty of the sheriff or director of public safety of every county, or the chief of police of every city or town, or the chief officer of other law enforcement agencies operating within this state, coroners or medical examiners, to record whenever possible the fingerprints and such other identification data as may be useful to establish identity, of all unidentified dead bodies found within their respective jurisdictions, and to furnish to the section all data so obtained. The section shall search its files and otherwise make a reasonable effort to determine the identity of the deceased and notify the contributing agency of the finding.”

South Carolina – Code 1976 17-5-57-
“If the body cannot be identified through reasonable efforts, the coroner must forward the body to the Medical University of South Carolina or other suitable facility for preservation.”

New York  – NY [Executive] Section 838 (McKinney)
“Every county medical examiner shall furnish the division promptly with copies of fingerprints on standardized eight inch by eight inch fingerprint cards, personal descriptions and other identifying data including date and place of death, of all deceased persons whose deaths are in a classification requiring inquiry  by the coroner where the deceased is not identified…

[3] Read Nancy Ritter, Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains: The Nation’s Silent Mass Disaster, NIJ Journal issue 256 (January 2007) https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/jr000256.pdf which is a Department of Justice article about use of the state and federal missing person registries.

[4] These manuals are not easily available. Here are the standards for autopsies. https://netforum.avectra.com/temp/ClientImages/NAME/eed6c85d-5871-4da1-aef3-abfc9bb80b92.pdf  If it isn’t available in your public library or the county law library, you might find excerpts posted on the county medical examiner’s Web site which you can navigate to via http://www.statelocalgov.net/.

[5] Examples:  New York. Social Service Law Section 141; California Health and Safety Code Section 7104; Nevada Revised Statutes Chapter 451.400; DC Code Title 5, Chapter 14, Part 11 (5-14-11); Official Code of Georgia Title 31 Chapter 21.

[6] Examples: Texas Health & Safety Code Section 691.023; Colorado Revised Statutes 12-34-201; Florida Statutes Chapter 406 Part 50.

[7] Examples: Ohio Revised Code 1713.34; Arkansas Code Title 20, Chapter 17, Subchapter 7; Delaware Code Title 16 Chapter 27 part 02.

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8 Comments »

  1. sheri said

    My son-in-law was just notified yesterday that his estranged father of almost 8 years had died in Alabama. He died from exposure and was found under a bridge and evidently was homeless….dentures had his name on them and thus they were able to trace my son-in-law as next of kin.

    My daughter and her husband are in poverty levels as far as his income goes, and they and their 3 small children have been living within our household for the last 4 months and do not have any resources available in this matter since even their tax returns are already spoken for.

    Whom can they turn to for financial aid? We live in Wisconsin, the deceased is in Alabama.

    The circumstances of their estrangement are such that the man had been in prison for attempted murder and had no contact with any family member since his crime had happened or since he was released from prison.

    Please give us an idea of whom we could contact for help in this…if you can.

    Thank you….please reply to my e-mail address provided.

  2. Paula said

    Ok, so this article still didn’t answer my question completely which is, what happens to a body of a person they can’t identify etc? I understood that some bodies go to medical research but what exactly do they mean when they say: Some allow the state’s anatomical board to regulate disposal of the body….??? What kind of procedure/s does that involve with in doing to a body? Can anybody give me a more specific answer to as what exactly happens with the body and who the heck are the people on the anatomical board?
    Thanks,

    Paula

    • Robin said

      Ma’am, If the body is not ID’d or claimed, the state of where the person died usually does one of three things depending on the state:
      1. Bury the body in a graveyard, usually called a Potter’s Field.
      2. Cremate the body and either store or bury the ashes.
      3. Donate the body to medical science.

      Each State has different laws on what to do with the body of the Unidentified Victims.

      • Robin said

        Further answer to your question:

        1. Each State’s legislative bodies decide, with advice of drs and medical examiners, what to do with Unidentified Bodies. If the legislative decides to allow the unidentified to be given to Medical science for anatomical studies by student doctors, theres a board, usually made up of civilians and doctors and lawmakers, thats already in place to govern how dead bodies are given to science. Some states have private companies that takes care of donations of corpses and just regulate them through laws. It really depends on which state you live or die in. If you are wondering about your particular state, look up the laws on the internet. Most states have all the Laws and Regulations on the net.

  3. Tanya said

    Just last wk my Aunt got a letter in the mail, will come to find out my uncle Pete had passed away back on August 5th 2010, was buried on Sept 16th 2010. We never said our good bye’s.. I don’t feel the state of AZ made any effort into finding out who he truly was. Did’nt contact the next of kin! He was a Veteran who fought for his country.. He was laid to rest in a Cemetary where they bury the Unknown, where they bury the Jane and John Doe’s…. So sad :( he deserved a proper burial… They probably assumed he was homeless with no family…

    • Shannon said

      I’m going through the same thing right now. My father passed away on Aug 14, 2012 and he was buried Sept 6, 2012 @ White Tanks Cemetery. I contacted AZ and they said they did a search to try & find his next of kin but I also don’t believe they tried very hard because my mother received a letter here in Indiana on Sept 15, 2012 stating that her child support case was closed because my father was deceased. So there was obviously a way to connect the two. Can u please tell me if u have found any information regarding how long &/or the lengths AZ has to go to in order to contact “next of kin”? Any information would be greatly appreciated.

  4. Rosemary Gaddy said

    so what if you are helping out someone who is homeless and they are staying with you and they die in your home are u liable for any costs related to burial or corner fees

    • It is very unusual to house a stranger who is on the verge of death. Whenever someone dies in your house, you are supposed to call 911. In response to that call, the paramedics will come to confirm that the person has died and the police will come to ascertain whether criminal activity led to the death.

      If the homeowner is in possession of the body, but does not have a next of kin relationship or authority, the police will probably take and store the homeless person’s possessions and ask the homeowner for any available information about relatives and other affiliations (religious, military, etc…) of the person who died. Relatives can donate the body to the state anatomical board if they do not want to pay for cremation or burial.

      If there is no relative or authorized person (a guardian, for example) immediately available to authorize a funeral home to remove the body from your house, the police will arrange for transport to the county morgue until either relatives can be located or the maximum time for staying at the morgue has lapsed. When the body can no longer remain at the morgue, it will be handled according to the state’s unclaimed bodies law which will typically authorize either cremation or burial in a government-owned facility or donation to the state’s anatomical board. If the death has occurred in a very large city, there might even be municipal provisions for the body. See, for example, New York City’s system. http://www.nyc.gov/html/ocme/html/faq/faq.shtml.

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