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02/16/2013

News / Arizona widower to receive wife's death certificate eight months after death

An Arizona man can finally request his wife's death certificate after a coroner ruled that her death was an accident. The coroner's report apparently took almost eight months to complete, something the local Medical Examiner’s Office blames on personnel shortage.

Robert Billings' wife Darien was discovered dead inside her home last June. Her husband went away on a business trip but became worried when she stopped making contact with him. He then asked their neighbors to check on her, and she was found lying dead at the bottom of the stairs inside their house in Ahwatukee Foothills, Maricopa County.

Billings’ initial shock and bereavement eventually turned to ire after he was unable to get his wife’s death certificate for several months. The document was indispensible for finalizing his wife’s estate, taking over her mortgage payments and claiming her life insurance.

The delay also piqued her siblings, who needed the death certificate to transfer the power of attorney she held over her living father’s will.

Billings phoned the Medical Examiner’s Office to find out when the autopsy report would be
issued, but his calls were not answered. The coroner’s autopsy report, which shows the cause of death, is needed for a death certificate to be issued.

“Oh, this made me absolutely insane because the people at the coroner’s office don’t seem to care,” he noted, as quoted by Call 12 for Action. “They don’t call back when they say they’re going to call back and there’s no response, ever. It’s a dead end.”

The apparent tie-up eventually prompted Billings to e-mail Call 12 for Action, a local news team focused on consumer issues. Call 12 for Action called the director of the Medical Examiner’s Office. Although he did not pick up the phone or call back, Billings was soon informed that the coroner had finally wrapped up his autopsy report and that his wife’s death was labeled an accident. Billings thanked the news team and said he would receive the belated death certificate within a matter of days.

Billings’ case is not unique and many families are complaining about the slowness in the work of the Medical Examiner’s Office. The office itself acknowledged last year that it had lost a third of its forensic pathologists since 2008, causing autopsy report delays.

Maricopa County spokesperson Cari Gerchick said 95 per cent of cases are cleared by the
Medical Examiner’s Office within 90 days, but also noted that the waiting time depends on the complexity of each individual case.

“In some instances, it is not always possible to reach that goal,” She stated. “We approach each autopsy with the appropriate level of scientific attention and work to keep each family member’s loved ones up to date.”

Gerchick also said that county officials will look into Robert Billings’ case, and examine ways in which to improve communication with the Medical Examiner’s Office.

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