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Family Legal Issues

Learn about common family legal issues.

How to Find Adoption Records

Once an adoption is finalized, the state seals all records to protect the privacy of all involved parties. To obtain adoption records, adopted persons must make arrangements through state agencies. Find out what records are available and how to obtain them.

Contact a State Agency to Obtain Adoption Records

You may be able to get identifying or non-identifying information about your adoption. What information you can obtain will depend on state statutes. Some states have age restrictions or require court proceedings to get information about an adoptee’s birth.

Non-identifying information includes:

  • The adoptee’s birth date and place of birth
  • The birth parents’:
    • Ages
    • Physical descriptions
    • Race
    • Religion
    • Medical history
    • Education 
    • Occupations 
  • Siblings’ gender, age, and other non-identifying information depending on the state
  • The reason why the child was put up for adoption

Identifying information includes:

  • Current or past names
  • Addresses
  • Employment history

By searching the Child Welfare Information Gateway, you can find out which state agency to contact to get adoption records.

Access Adoption Records Through Consent

In some states, you may be able to access identifying information through a mutual consent registry. Using these registries, all involved in an adoption can declare what information may be disclosed. Some states may require the consent of both the birth parents and adoptive parents for the release of records. However, the release of information varies by state.

If your state does not maintain a mutual consent registry, there are other ways to obtain records through consent. Public or private agencies can locate birth parents in some states. When an agency contacts birth parents, they can find out identifying information through:  

  • Confidential Intermediary System ‐ The court gives permission to a court-certified confidential intermediary. This permission grants them access to sealed adoption records. They can also contact the birth parents to obtain consent for the release of identifying information.
  • Affidavit System - Birth parents can officially file their consent or refusal to be identified or contacted.

Use the Child Welfare Information Gateway to find out about how your state allows access to your adoption records.

Obtain an Original Birth Certificate

When an adoption is finalized, the state issues a new birth certificate to the adoptive parents. The adoptee’s original birth certificate is then sealed and kept confidential by the state’s vital records department. Half the states in the U.S. require a court order to unseal an original birth certificate. However, many states allow access to original birth certificates through: 

  • A request from the adult adoptee 
  • A request by the adoptee unless the birth parent filed an affidavit denying access 
  • Establishment of eligibility to obtain identifying information with the state
  • A record of consent from both birth parents

Find out how to obtain original birth certificates in different states.

Obtain International Adoption Records

When either the adoptee or the birth parents live outside the U.S., International Social Service USA (ISS-USA) can help both search for one another. The organization offers assistance with adoption-related cases in over 120 countries.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has forms that can assist with international adoptions. Form G-884 can be used to request original immigration documents.

Divorce Decrees and Certificates

A divorce decree is an official document from the court that grants the termination of a marriage. It includes specific details of the divorce.

A divorce certificate is issued by a state vital records office. It shows that a divorce occurred but not all the same information as a divorce decree. You can save time and money by determining which document you need before requesting a copy.

U.S. Divorces

How to Get a Copy of a Divorce Decree

Contact the "county clerk's office" or "clerk of the court" for the county or city where the divorce occurred.

How to Get a Copy of a Divorce Certificate

Contact the vital records office of the state where the divorce occurred.

Overseas Divorces

If the divorce occurred in another country and you're in the U.S., contact that country's embassy or nearest consulate. They can tell you how to get a copy of the divorce decree.

United States law does not require U.S. citizens to register a foreign divorce decree at an embassy. But if the country in which your divorce took place is a signatory to the Hague Convention on the Authentication of Documents, you may bring your divorce decree to a U.S. embassy or consulate to have it certified.

Federal and State Agencies to Notify of a Name Change

You might change your name through marriage, divorce, or court. Update your new name with Social Security, the motor vehicle office, and other government agencies.

Social Security Card 

Notify the Social Security Administration (SSA) early. Other agencies learn of name changes through the SSA. 

Driver’s License or State ID Card

Contact your state motor vehicle office. Having an updated license or state ID will make changing your name with other agencies easier.

Tax Returns

Every name on your tax return must match Social Security Administration records. The IRS says it’s critical to update names with the SSA before filing your tax return.

U.S. Passport

Report your name change to the State Department as soon as possible to get an updated passport.

Naturalization Certificate and Certificate of Citizenship

Complete a USCIS application online or by mail to update the name on your naturalization or citizenship certificate.

Veterans Benefits

If you receive veterans healthcare or benefits, notify the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). 

Voter Registration

Update your state voter registration 

Postal Service

Report your name change to the local post office that delivers your mail.  

State Benefits Programs

Contact your state’s social services office if you receive SNAP (food stamps), TANF (welfare), or other public assistance.

State and Property Taxes

Notify your state taxing authority. 

If you own a home, notify the city or county property tax office. 

How to Close Accounts and Cancel Benefits After Someone Dies

After someone's death, it's important to cancel or transfer accounts. To do so, you must contact government agencies, companies, and organizations to let them know the person is deceased. This also protects the person's estate from financial loss and identity theft.

Each agency or company may ask you for different information. You’ll need the person’s Social Security number and a photocopy or a certified copy of the death certificate to close or transfer accounts.

Consider ordering multiple certified copies of the death certificate while making funeral arrangements. The cost to do so varies by state. You’ll typically need certified copies for canceling or transferring:

  • Government benefits and identification
  • Credit cards and bank or investment accounts
  • Real estate or vehicles

Utilities and other companies may just need a photocopy. In most cases, the funeral home provides this service only to immediate family members and the executor of the estate. If you need more certified copies later, contact your county or city.

Report a Death to Government Programs and Agencies

  • Social Security and Medicare - When you’re making final arrangements for your loved one, you can give their Social Security number to the funeral director. They will submit the information to the Social Security Administration (SSA). This step stops future benefit payments. You’ll need to return any SSA payments that arrive after the person’s death. Mail the check back or contact the bank if the payment is by direct deposit. You can also contact SSA to find out about any survivor benefits.
  • IRS personal income tax filing - If the person died before filing their individual income tax return due in April, someone will have to do it for them. You may also need to file a final tax return for the year of their death in the next tax season. Learn how to file a deceased person’s tax return.
  • U.S. Passport - To avoid identity theft, you can mail the person’s passport to the State Department along with a letter asking them to cancel it. Include a certified copy of the death certificate and let them know if you want the canceled passport sent back to you as a keepsake or destroyed.
  • Motor vehicles office - Contact the state motor vehicles office to cancel the deceased person's records. You can also contact the motor vehicle office to return disabled parking placards, licenses, or ID cards. If the person had a vehicle, ask about transferring the title to the appropriate person.
  • Social services and benefits programs - Contact the state social services office to cancel benefit payments from social service programs. These programs include SNAP (food stamps), TANF (welfare), or rental assistance. 
  • Property tax records - If the person owned a home, check with the town, city, or county tax office about the deed and any property taxes that are due.
  • Veterans benefits - If your loved one was a veteran, you may want to contact the VA about burial benefits and ask about survivor benefits. In addition, notify these other VA departments if the person was:
  • Board of Elections - Contact the local BOE where the person lived to remove the person's name from the voter registration list to avoid voter fraud.

Report a Death to Financial Institutions

  • Credit reporting agencies - Send a letter with a certified copy of the death certificate to one of the three big credit reporting agencies. They will share the information with the other two agencies. Include the person’s name, address, Social Security number, and your name and contact information. Six to eight weeks after the funeral, ask for a credit report for the person to check for possible identity theft.
  • Bank - Check the person's bank for a signature card to find out who can access the account. Find out about checking and savings accounts, loans, bank credit cards, investments, and whether there is a safety deposit box. Also, check for any direct deposits. You may have to wait until after the estate is settled and all outstanding bills have been paid to close the account.
  • Automatic payments - Review the bank statement and credit cards for any autopay accounts. These could include mortgages, home equity loans, utilities, memberships, or student loans. You may need to call each company to cancel. Also, if you wait to stop any future auto payments, it may be difficult to get reimbursed for payments that went out after the person died.
  • Credit cards - If you are a spouse, the cards may be joint accounts. Call the companies and let them know that one of the cardholders has died. Otherwise, cancel all cards to stop anyone from using them in the future and to stop any accumulating interest or recurring payments.
  • Life insurance - If the person was still employed, there may be a policy through work. Contact the human resource department to help you. Also ask about canceling other types of insurance the person may have had through work, such as health, dental, or vision.  
  • Mortgage - A bank or lender may foreclose on the home if payments don’t continue. Contact the lender right away to let them know about the death, find out how to continue payments, and how to transfer the mortgage to an heir.
  • Pensions - Check for private and government plans at current or former workplaces. Also, contact investment or financial advisors.
  • Other Insurance Policies - There may be other plans such as pet or renter’s insurance. Check the cancellation clause and the bank statement for any auto payments.
  • Prescription Plan - Medicare Part D is the prescription plan that people sign up for separately. Check to see if SSA canceled the plan. Also, check with the drug store to stop any automatic refills. This prevents someone from fraudulently picking up any medications.

Learn from the Federal Trade Commission what to do about the debts of a person who has died. Find out who is obligated to pay and what to do if debt collectors call.

Cancel a Deceased Person’s Utilities, Communications, and Other Services

  • Stop mail delivery and forward mail - Contact the local post office to redirect the person’s mail. This prevents an overflowing mailbox that would tip off thieves to an empty home. It also prevents identity thieves from stealing mail offering new credit cards.
  • Home utilities - If you are the spouse, call to transfer the account to your name. If you are selling the person’s home, you may want to keep gas, heating oil, or electricity on during the process. Check the bank statement for auto payments you may have to cancel or transfer.
  • Cable/internet and cell/home phone - Depending on the provider, payments may be bundled into one bill. Call the provider to cancel or transfer the contract. You will need the person’s phone number and Social Security number.
  • Mobile apps - App subscriptions are usually paid by credit card. Contact customer support for the mobile device’s operating system app store. You may need the person’s email, password, and a certified copy of the death certificate.

Cancel a Deceased Person’s Subscriptions and Memberships 

Look in the person’s wallet for any membership cards. Check their mail for renewals, and bank or credit card statements for recurring payments. In some cases, these organizations have the person’s credit card number. Canceling the account can help avoid any fraudulent use. You may or may not need a copy of the death certificate to cancel.

  • Magazines and newspapers - Call customer service to cancel online service or stop home delivery.
  • Entertainment accounts - Check for online movie, sports, music, or gaming subscriptions.
  • Auto club or roadside assistance - Check inside the vehicle for any paperwork.
  • Additional subscriptions and memberships - If it’s a national company, call customer service. For internet club accounts, you may need the password to end the membership online. Other accounts you may need to cancel include:
    • Warehouse clubs
    • Buying services
    • Meal kits
    • Health clubs
    • Airline or hotel memberships
    • Monthly subscription boxes
    • Dating website memberships
  • Affinity groups including organizations for seniors, veterans, or local business owners - In some cases, these groups may want to plan a future memorial service.
  • Religious organization/house of worship - Check for any monthly offering or commitment payments from the checking account or credit card.
  • Charities - Check for any monthly or annual donation payments from the checking account or credit card.
  • Union dues - Labor organization dues are typically paid by payroll deduction. Speak to the HR department of the employer and ask who contacts the union.
  • Unclaimed money - There may be money from a forgotten credit union account or an unknown insurance policy. Contact the companies to prevent fraud.

Shred the person’s old credit or membership cards once you get a notification that the accounts were canceled.

Death Benefits From the Government

After a family member’s death, you may be eligible for death benefits from the government. These can include survivor payments, educational or housing help, military honors, and COVID-19 burial reimbursement. 

Use USAGov's benefits locator tool to find benefits you might qualify for.

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Last Updated: August 8, 2022