How do police and other first responders identify next of kin or other contacts during a death or emergency?
January 3, 2011 8:39 AM   Subscribe

How do police and other first responders identify next of kin or other contacts during a death or emergency?

This is something I’ve always wondered. As far as I know there is no master government database containing up-to-date emergency contact information for everyone, but when an accident occurs the police will inevitably come knocking on someone’s door to give them the bad news. How do they do this? How easy/hard is it for them to track down?

Sorry for the length of this question but it seems like any answer is going to have a whole bunch of "Yeah, but what if..." exceptions and I'm trying to cover them.

Consider the following scenarios, each with varying degrees of difficulty. Assume in each case the body is identified correctly but there is nobody on-scene that knows the victim.

1) I am killed in a car accident. I live with my wife, who has a different last name. Police would have access to my license with my current address. Would they just show up at my door and ask if anyone there is related to me? What if I lived with roommates, or alone, not my wife? How would they find my brothers or mother? Can they access some records that would have this information? What are these records? What if they’re not up-to-date? What if I haven’t updated my license since I was married?

2) My mom dies at home and after her body is discovered the police need to notify someone. She is long divorced and she has a different last name as her sons. Do the police ask the neighbors? They might know my first name but not my last. What if they neighbors don’t know anything? Do they look around the house for clues? They’d see my baby pictures on the wall so they’d assume she has children but she’d probably have very little that has my name and address on it in any context that would identify me as her son.

3) My dad dies at home. Same last name as me, but there are at least 200 people in the area with the same last name. Assume his neighbors don’t know anything. Nothing in the house that would identify his three sons or that he even has three sons.

Is this someone’s job at the department? Do they use a number of different sources of information (credit info, RMV, insurance info, medical records) and they just piece it together or is there some master database they use? How is it kept up to date? Has anything changed in the internet age? Would they just see if I have a Facebook profile and see who I’m married to?

What happens when Joe Smith dies? How do they make sure they have the right Smith family?

How much effort do they put into finding someone? Does this vary by town or state? Do they give up after a couple hours and just wait for someone to be reported missing? Do they put less effort in depending on the situation? When my estranged grandfather died in a state nursing home his obituary said he had “no known relatives” even though he had three living children with his same last name. Did nobody think to check or was it just not worth the effort for an old man who was a ward of the state?

Do the police even do this or is this the hospital’s / medical examiner’s / fire deparment’s job?

I’d appreciate answers from someone who actually knows, not guesses or votes on which guesses you think are best. Thanks.
posted by bondcliff to Law & Government (25 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
When I faced hospitalization, and couldn't recall telephone numbers offhand, they searched through my wallet and called contact numbers from there and sent somebody to the address on my ID.
posted by Rendus at 8:48 AM on January 3, 2011


I can only give you anecdata.

When our former roommate died in another part of the US, they could not find his family right away since he'd been estranged from them. They went through the DMV to find his previous addresses, he had been at ours the longest although it was 4-5 years previous he'd moved out, so the detective from our city's PD knocked on our door and asked if we knew him. At the same time, they were also going through his current apartment for mail and information (with current roommate's consent). This was about 24 hours after his death, which looked very suspiciously like a homicide (detectives asked us some questions about if he sold drugs or owed people money). Several hours after they told us, they were able to track down his father successfully, but I don't know how.
posted by kpht at 8:51 AM on January 3, 2011


The police have access to state databases that include birth certificates and marriage licenses as well as DMV records. That is the first place they would check if there were no obvious relatives to contact. In the longer term, there are other things that identify relatives such as tax returns where they are listed as dependents and Social Security filings.


Has anything changed in the internet age? Would they just see if I have a Facebook profile and see who I’m married to?

Yes, your internet presence would be one place they would look, but it would not be the first since most of it is unofficial.
posted by soelo at 8:52 AM on January 3, 2011


In addition to the information provided above, many cell phones now offer the ability to specify "ICE" (in case of emergency) contacts in your phone that appear at the top of your contact list. I assume first responders are aware of this.
posted by proj at 8:54 AM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was on hand when a co-worker died. We gave the emergency personel our HR director's number, who gave them his emergency contact info.
posted by chrchr at 8:56 AM on January 3, 2011


In the US, older people and people with chronic serious illness are generally encouraged by their doctors (and sometimes by their municipality) to participate in programs like File of Life. In the senior complex where my dad lived, pretty much every door had a sticker on it saying "File of Life" and everyone had the little red folder on their refrigerator. When the emergency responders would come to take Dad to the hospital, they'd bring the folder with them so that the hospital personnel would have access to the information as well.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:00 AM on January 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


One other place that police might look in the absence of other information is your health insurance card--they could call your primary care provider and get emergency contacts from your file there. (Of course those could be out of date, but it's a place to start.)
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:02 AM on January 3, 2011


This previous AskMe thread has some info on this.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:04 AM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I almost feel as if you're conflating the military announcement of death with the police giving that news. The military come to your door in full dress and solemnly tell you something has happened to your loved one. The police ask you to come down to the station to identify a body. They aren't so much delivering news as asking for you to confirm what they suspect. And they don't have to figure everything out in advance - they just look for clues to determine who the next of kin is, and then once they've found the most likely person, ask them to come in. But they can go through a number of roommates or neighbors first, before they find a parent or spouse...

So in short, they do it the same way they do any investigation, by following clues until they reach a good fit, though in this case they have a good way to confirm they got it right. And they don't always figure it out - there are plenty of unidentified deaths every year.
posted by mdn at 9:08 AM on January 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


You might be interested in the documentary A Certain Kind of Death. clickthrough warning: minimally graphic image of a corpse

It's about what happens when someone dies without a next-of-kin, including the process the government goes through to try to identify one. It's on a longer timescale than you seem to be thinking of, but addresses some of the same issues.

I saw it on Netflix Streaming, it may still be available.
posted by endless_forms at 9:08 AM on January 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


We gave the emergency personel our HR director's number, who gave them his emergency contact info.

In the US, older people and people with chronic serious illness are generally encouraged by their doctors (and sometimes by their municipality) to participate in programs like File of Life.


I guess my question is more for cases when there are no obvious sources. I've filled out emergency contact at work, so if I die they'll know who to call. If I check into a hospital or a nursing home I'll fill out something similar.

The police have access to state databases that include birth certificates and marriage licenses

Is this true? Seems like in a lot of states this information has only recently (if ever) been computerized and things like birth certificates would only list parents, who may be long dead.
posted by bondcliff at 9:09 AM on January 3, 2011


Our neighbors were killed in a car accident out of state, and the police there called my local police, who then went door to door asking neighbors for information. None of us had any contact information, so they used a key left with my family to go into the house. So, in that case (when neither of the deceased had cell phones or obvious relations) they went by the information on a driver's license.
posted by punchtothehead at 9:18 AM on January 3, 2011


I guess my question is more for cases when there are no obvious sources.

For this reason, I strongly encourage you to check out endless_forms' suggestion, A Certain Kind of Death. It's a fantastic look at the people who deal with this sort of issue.
posted by meese at 9:34 AM on January 3, 2011


Part of the answer is that despite the best efforts of the police and others involved, sometimes they can't track down anybody. So two corollaries to this question might be, (a) how often do people die without any clue as to who they are, and (b) how often can no next of kin or friends be located.

As to (a), here's an interesting (old) item from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2003 about unidentified bodies — at that time there were 98 active cases of this kind in Washington state. (Part 7 of this series.) Extrapolating for the country as a whole, there must be close to 5,000 unidentified dead around the country, all of whom, obviously, are in category (b) as well, no relatives notified. (These deaths are spread over a period of years, so 5,000 is a cumulative, not an annual number.)

As to (b), deaths where no next of kind can be found, here's a story from Oregon including a database of "the unclaimed". In that state, over a period of 9.5 years, there were 1847 unclaimed (but mostly identified) bodies. That extrapolates to 15,600 per year for the US as a whole, assuming that Oregon's figures are average. That's out of 2.42 million deaths per year in the US, so on average, it appears that in about 1 in 155 deaths, no relatives or other friends can be located.

Often, this can happen when the person is elderly, was never married, was an only child, had no children, and whose parents were only children. In this situation, there are no parents, no siblings, no children, no spouse, no aunts or uncles, no even any first cousins. If, on top of this, the person was not particularly social, or dies after years in a nursing home with most friends having died as well, there's literally nobody to inform. I once attended the funeral of such a person — she had the shortest of all obits in the paper, including something to the effect of "no known relatives". I got interested in the case to see if there was a story there (I was the newspaper's publisher), made some phone calls, found nobody who knew her. So I decided to go the burial (there was a family plot and I think some kind of prepaid burial arrangement) to see if any relatives or friends would show up. As it turned out, the funeral consisted of me, the funeral director, and a deacon from the Catholic church who conducted the very brief service. They told me it wasn't particularly unusual for this to happen; they handled two or three cases a year like that.
posted by beagle at 9:34 AM on January 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


My knowledge applies to Minnesota, but even before it was all computerized, it was available at the county courthouse and could have eventually been sought out there if one knew the county of birth. Things are just faster now. As for parents being dead, a database will let you cross reference that parent's name to find siblings and to check for the newly deceased's name listed as the parent on any newer birth certificates.

Our high school provided a copy of each yearbook to the local police department. I would not be surprised if they would contact a former school for contact info if the deceased was relatively young.
posted by soelo at 9:36 AM on January 3, 2011


The police officers will ask the neighbors/witnesses for information. My mom died in a scenario very close to your #2 above, and the police officer at the scene asked around until he got my number from one of her friends (a friend of the one who found her).
posted by widdershins at 9:55 AM on January 3, 2011


Anecdata: a coworker of mine (divorced man who lived alone) was found dead in his home. The police first spoke with neighbors, but none were aware of next of kin. The police then called the most recently dialed numbers in his cell phone. The first person they reached was another coworker, who was able to put the police in touch with the deceased's sons (who had a different last name).
posted by superna at 10:19 AM on January 3, 2011


The military come to your door in full dress and solemnly tell you something has happened to your loved one. The police ask you to come down to the station to identify a body. They aren't so much delivering news as asking for you to confirm what they suspect.

This isn't always the case. When my aunt and uncle couldn't get their daughter to answer her cell phone right after there was a big car accident near her high school, a police officer came to their house and waited with them. Then another officer showed up after a couple of hours to deliver the tragic news. This was in the San Diego area a decade ago.

When my father died, he was homeless (and I hadn't spoken to him in many years). The local coroner went through his things and eventually found my and my siblings names on an old letter. This was in Florida, and the coroner eventually did enough research to find us in Oregon (for which I was very grateful).
posted by JenMarie at 11:03 AM on January 3, 2011


What I’m gathering by the answers so far is that there isn’t some special tool that police have, but it’s more like detective work using a variety of resources including RMV records, neighbors, whatever documents they can find at the scene, cell phones, etc. It also seems to vary by town, by police department, and possibly by individual officer depending on how much effort they want to put into it.

That’s sort of what I thought but I thought there might be some standard application/database they all have access to.

I was mostly thinking about situations where there are next-of-kin, they would want to know, but there is nothing obvious to link to them from the victim.
posted by bondcliff at 11:21 AM on January 3, 2011


There was a story about tracking down next-of-kin on This American Life a few years ago - Act I of this show, Home Alone. Apparently in big cities there are people whose job it is to track down people who die alone, and it really is a kind detective work; they'll go through your address book and your phone and talk to your neighbors, read old Christmas cards, whatever they can do to find someone who knows you and is related to you.
posted by mskyle at 1:05 PM on January 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


This isn't always the case...

Yeah, I didn't mean they wouldn't give you any news - I imagine even if they want you to come in to the morgue, they've already made a tentative identification and would have to let you know that. My only point was that it would be more like an ongoing investigation than a solemn announcement, so detectives have to deal with that aspect of the job just like doctors do, but there isn't a definitive ritual like the one for soldiers.
posted by mdn at 1:45 PM on January 3, 2011


I used to work for a local sheriff's office and assisted on many death investigations. The medical examiner was called and they, most often, would make contact with next of kin of the deceased. They use computers, cells phones and info in wallets or purses to find out who to notify. If someone dies at home and there is a pre-existing condition, the medical examiner may be called, but not respond. The funeral home is then called to make arrangements, they may call folks if no one has been notified. I remember making a few calls to families outside the local area, it was difficult, but important work. I also remember being dispatched to homes, at the request of other agencies, asking to give notice of a death that had occured. Giving the phone numbers of the agencies requesting contact. Most notifications are done by medical examiners. Now with texting and immediate info, many folks try to show up at a death investigation, they may get a bit of information from a firefighter or the police, but will/should be be referred to the M.E.'s office.
posted by jennstra at 2:41 PM on January 3, 2011


My mom, who is 77 years old, has a short list of phone numbers on a bulletin board by her phone in the kitchen - her kids, her friends, other key numbers. I guess this is a good thing. And knowing my mom, a very deliberate thing.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 5:42 PM on January 3, 2011


Another idea is that if they know who the deceased's doctor(s) is/are, most doctor's offices ask for an emergency contact when you fill out your new patient information. If that emergency contact is not next of kin, it might be someone who knows who the next of kin is.
posted by IndigoRain at 9:05 PM on January 3, 2011


I run out of doors and I used to carry my license to identify who I was in case I was in an accident. Everything was great until the day I lost my license (and yes, I did have to stand in line at the DMV).

Now I use one of thse wristbands that have plates on which emergency contact information is engraved (along with things like blood type and drug allergies).
posted by cheez-it at 10:53 AM on January 4, 2011


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