Faulty Death Certificate, Red Tape Stand in the Way of Closure for Grieving Family

November 4, 2009
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imageDEL MAR ? The end came quickly for Lillian Steinberg, an artist, pilot, world traveler and stay-at-home mom who spent the last of her 94 years in her Del Mar home overlooking Soledad Lagoon.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer in April and passed away at home Aug. 28. But certifying the death has been anything but quick.

More than two months after Steinberg died, her relatives are still waiting for an amended death certificate because the date recorded on the original was wrong.

And until the family receives an official amended certification, they can’t transfer title to the house, distribute bank holdings, register a vintage car or dispose of other assets left by the matriarch.

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“This has been an emotional and punishing experience,” said Jeff Steinberg, a local furniture salesman and one of the surviving children. “This should be a priority and be fixed immediately.”

The son said he first noticed a discrepancy on paperwork Aug. 31, when he was making arrangements. He told the cremation service someone recorded the date of death as Aug. 27 and it needed to be corrected.

His mother was placed into cold storage while the service tried to find a doctor to sign off on the death. The body was cremated Sept. 9 but Steinberg could not collect his mother’s remains until Sept. 15.

For six weeks, Steinberg said, he has been unable to get a straight answer about what went wrong or how the problem can be fixed. Blame has been shifted from the cremation service to doctors to the state and to the county.

“Nobody should have to go through this,” he said. “It’s bad enough to lose a loved one.”

Under state rules, applications to change dates on a death certificate must be signed by a doctor or the local coroner.

State officials said they did not receive an amended document from the physician who signed the original death certificate, Brian H. Graham, until Oct. 22. They said they mailed it to the county the following day.

“The onus is really on the physician or coroner of record to get this information to us,” said Ralph Montano, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Health, a clearinghouse for vital records.

But county records clerks said they received no documentation on the death since mid- September. American Cremation referred questions to an attorney, and Graham said in a brief interview that he had no recollection of the death or the incorrect certificate.

“I’d have to check my records,” Graham said when reached on his cell phone.

The family-practice physician said to call him at Odyssey Hospice, where Lillian Steinberg spent several days before returning home in her final days. He did not return the message left there.

Debra Scheufler, the American Cremation attorney, said the mistake was apparently made by a contractor hired to retrieve the body from Steinberg’s home. She said Jeff Steinberg should have noticed the error before he signed paperwork with the wrong date of death.

She also said the body arrived after regular business hours, and the doctor whose name was provided to her client never returned calls for information about the cause of death. That information is required before a cremation can occur.

The cremation service eventually contacted Graham, who signed the misdated death certificate.

Steinberg, who prepaid American Cremation for up to 10 certified copies of the death certificate, said he is angry the company failed to respond to his requests for an explanation.

In a prepared statement, Scheufler said her client apologized several times.

The company “regrets any distress that this error may have caused Mrs. Steinberg’s family and has taken it upon itself to ensure that the corrected death certificate is completed and provided to the family,” she wrote.

For granddaughter Stefanie Steinberg, a lawyer who lives in Los Angeles, the apology did little to make up for the mistakes and delays.

“My grandmother was a really cool lady,” she said. “We had this person that we loved die. dot .{PI:82}.{PI:82}. This whole thing is ridiculous.”

Source: The San Diego Union Tribune

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