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. (Note: You have to create a free log-in to use the NamUs database.)
See also the FBI site that lists found remains of missing and unidentified persons.

[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 from the National Association of Medical Examiners. https://www.thename.org/assets/docs/2016%20NAME%20Forensic%20Autopsy%20Standards%209-25-2020.pdf  If a manual 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, Sub-chapter 7; Delaware Code Title 16 Chapter 27 part 02.

27 Replies to “Under the law, what happens if a homeless person is found dead and nobody knows who it is?”

  1. 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. 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?


    1. 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.

      1. 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. 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…

    1. 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.

    2. Wow! I can’t believe there are other people going thru the same stuff I am! My father was also a veteran of the Air Force. In 1997 (after I told him I was expecting the first grandchild) I found out that his drinking problem and inability to keep a job was leading to him being evicted. He told my Aunt (his sister, both of them lived in Phoenix). He had been incredibly successful in his career, but at this point had nothing. He told my Aunt and my mother (divorced in 1989) that if he is evicted, nobody will hear from him. Well, he was evicted. We thought he either died or was camping in the desert. In 1998 I went to Phoenix to check hospitals, jails, prison, police records, my ex-step-mother, desert hideouts for homeless and homeless shelters and soup kitchens. I found nothing! Since them I did quite a bit of long distance research, phone calls and web surfing, but nothing! I contacted the police again and they confirmed that the only run-in with the law he had on record was within a week of my grandmothers death in 1993. The police did a welfare check. All of a sudden, in January/February 2012, my mother (his ex!) gets a letter from Social Security telling her that she’s old enough to receive her Social Security, or she can choose to receive my fathers amount of social security (they were married over 20 years). Apparently, my dad died on November 25, 2010! Nobody told anyone! I’m his oldest living child and easy to find. My brother is easy to find, my mother is OBVIOUSLY easy to find! His sister lives in Phoenix and easy to find as well! Even his mistress (wife of 6 months) was in Phoenix and easy to find! Over the past few years, I’ve contacted the Maricopa County Medical Examiners Office, but without his death certificate and proof that he’s my father they can’t help. I’ve paid AZ $40 on two occasions so that I can have his death certificate, but every single fax, letter and certified letter either never arrived, was lost, or wasn’t good enough. That’s $80 and a couple weeks of time I’ll never get back! Out of the blue a couple weeks ago, I was looking for him and was shocked to stumble on an address in Sun City (down the road from my grandmas condo). It showed the woman (I believe my father might have rented a room from her and her husband) went to the same Ohio High School, graduated the same year and attended the same college and graduated the same year too! It’s been almost 6 years since I found out he died and I’m just finding this out now? To make matters worse, I was directed to the AZ unclaimed Property site. Without his death certificate, I can’t claim his unclaimed property! Some property is considered abandoned after 5 years! I don’t think it’s money. It’s probably now worth any money. But, I’d like to have it anyways! A pair of socks, a wallet and photos…something to tell me where he was and what was he doing all those years. I can’t find out where he died. How he died. Nothing! I can’t even tell if he’s been burried into any of the Potters Fields! I’m pissed that AZ did nothing to notify us at all! Instead they disposed of him as a piece of annoying trash! Like the other woman said…my dad had big issues! He almost died when he and my mother tried to save my two brothers (ages 3 & 6) from a house fire shortly before I was born. People said he was never the same! He fought for his country, tried his best tomcare for his family and was a hero that was willing to die and go blind for months after the fire (his eye balls were black!)….but instead if a couple minutes on the web, they decided he was a piece of trash and not worth the effort to return him to us. They treated him (AND APPARENTLY OTHERS TOO!) like worthless trash! Hopefully all of us can find the answers we need….and soon!!

    3. At least Arizona does something respectable with the remains of the dead. I am not able to speak to how well they try to locate next of kin, but be grateful that they keep the remains in some way. In Florida they cremate them and then depending on which county it is, after 120 days they either throw the ashes out in the ocean or into and unmarked grave with all of the other unclaimed dead. I think across the nation they need to do a better job of looking for next of kin. In this age of internet surely it is easier to find people.

  4. 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

    1. 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.

  5. I found a grave on find a grave.com. with my father’s name Dennis Hilts, same birth year as my father. Died in 1986. I can’t find any information on any of this. How could I find out if it’s him. They said he was a homeless man. Please let me know what to do.

    1. Contact the owner of the cemetery. It might be a congregation, a larger religious organization (like a diocese), or a private company. The findagrave information should have told you the City and the name of the cemetery. With those two facts you can find the cemetery’s website and track down contact information for the cemetery’s office. Ask them if they can tell you some facts about the burial: who paid for it, whether and where an obituary was published, date of death, and anything else that they know about this decedent. Once you have a name, place, and date of death (not date of burial) contact the office of vital records in that state and order a death certificate. That will tell you how he died and whether it happened in a hospital. Just to be thorough, see that state’s unclaimed property records. Here is a portal to vital records offices. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/w2w.htm Here is a link to unclaimed property offices: http://www.unclaimed.org/ Since this death happened nearly thirty years ago, you might not find any homeless agencies that would remember him, but you could contact the public library in the city where he died and ask them how you might search in newspapers from that era. There might have been a local homeless newspaper that he contributed to or in which he was quoted or described. There might have been an interview or an obituary in the main local paper. It can be hard to get police records, but you might also contact the police department for that city, tell them your story, and ask if they can help you locate archival records about him. If he really was homeless, there might have been times when he got picked-up by police for loitering or vagrancy or stealing food. I hope that this quest brings you peace.

  6. My brother has been homeless on and off since he was 16 years old, living with a drug dealer father and an alcoholic mother, who threw him out in his underwear when ever she was in her drunken stupor. My sister and I escaped them by running to the police at the age of 8 and 9. My brother didn’t know them until my grandparents died as they raised him. Once they got him, his destiny was a life of hell. And so he did. He left New York because of a contract out on him. He lived in different areas of California. Living in shelters, occasionally having his own place. I look for him occasionally because he has not called me in years. I recently saw his name in the white pages with deceased typed under it. I have been trying to find out how he died. So I begin at the last place he called me from which was Santa Barbara. Isn’t there something in place that lists the homeless deceased for family who may be searching for them. He stayed away from me because I loaned him money and I told him not to do that. He also knew that I would want to put him in a program like I did before. I want to find my brother and if its true that he died. It was said he died in 2007. He would be 61 now. Does anyone know how to find a deceased person who was homeless? I want to know how he died. Where he is. I cannot stop my pain. Ever since I saw deceased in the white pages.

    1. Contact the university medical college. They can confirm whether her remains were sent to potter’s field. What year was that? I am searching a great-uncle who died and went to the Cincinnati potter’s field, I cannot find his name in the lists on the library site, but I did find an entry thst showed 410 bodies cremated in a mass cremation. In more recent years they have started putting remains in a nicer memorial park. Thete is more info on the medical school website. It is hard to find info on.the potter’s field because it has been defunct for decades. Good luck in your search

      1. The mass cremation was of bodies that had been studied by the anatomy students of the medical school.

  7. To whom it may concern, my fiance was recently found in a worksite restroom. He OD d on heroine. The family was able to retrieve all belongings he had on him that day except his cell phone. I called police dept and they said they wouldn’t have kept it . I wasn’t sure if it maybe was used for investigation? I’m curious if anyone may know this answer because I can’t seem to get one. Seems to me his dealer sold him bad stuff, waited for him to die, then went in bathroom and took phone from him…just doesn’t seem right. And I’m wrong in my thoughts?

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