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Info Series: Dealing With the County Coroner

A few weeks ago, I was called upon by a former client to deal with the aftermath of a close friend passing away suddenly. The passing did not occur in a hospital so the deceased’s body was taken by the county coroner.

If you were like me, you’ve never dealt with a situation like that before. One big question I had was how long does the county coroner’s office hold on to the deceased’s body? After a bit of research, this is what I found. Hopefully it will help you as well.

The question of how long the coroner will keep the body is specified by California law in Health and Safety Code section 7104.1 which states the following:

If, within 30 days after the coroner notifies or diligently
attempts to notify the person responsible for the interment of a
decedent's remains which are in the possession of the coroner, the
person fails, refuses, or neglects to inter the remains, the coroner
may inter the remains. The coroner may recover any expenses of the
interment from the responsible person.

In lay person’s terms, the coroner has 30 days in which to locate and notify the deceased’s family to come claim the body. As the Santa Clara County coroner was kind of enough to tell me, a county coroner is a law enforcement agency and has the same access to law enforcement databases and research tools to locate people that a police department or sheriff’s office might. The other big question I had was what happens if the deceased’s family is located, but fails to claim the body for whatever reason? Happily, this question is also addressed in the Health and Safety Code, this time in the various parts of section 7105.

The precise amount of time a person has to act to claim a deceased’s body depends on who the person claiming the body is, as defined under Health and Safety Code section 7100. If the person is an adult child, adult sibling, or the parents of the deceased, for example, that person has 7 days to claim the body once they are found and notified by the coroner. If the person is the surviving spouse of the decedent, they have slightly more time (10 days) once they are found and notified.

Similarly, if the person to whom responsibility to claim the body falls under section 7100 fails to claim the body within 7 days (in the majority of cases) or 10 days (if the person is the surviving spouse) once they are found and notified, the responsibility then falls to the next person in the order specified under 7100.

In my case, I was lucky that the first family member the coroner and I found was able to come claim the body within the prescribed 7 day period. Hopefully you will be similarly lucky in your case.

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Andy Chen

Andy I. Chen is a lawyer licensed to practice law in California and New York. Andy maintains offices in Los Altos, California and Modesto, California. Under the New York Court of Appeals' 2015 decision in Schoenefeld v. State of New York, Andy does not accept cases from those in New York state. He does, however, know many lawyers in New York state and would be happy to make a referral.