Mistakes on death certificates could impact insurance payouts. Here’s one woman’s warning

ATLANTA — It’s an important legal document but one where many times we don’t look at the fine print.

There’s so much going on when a loved one dies but researchers say a large percentage of death certificates have mistakes.

Channel 2 consumer investigator Justin Gray has learned that those mistakes can be really important when dealing with things like life insurance.

A column left blank or filled out incorrectly can mean an insurance policy a family paid into for decades may not pay out.

Every day her husband was in the hospital and rehab, Kathy Walsh took meticulous notes in her journal.


Her 79-year-old husband, Bill Walsh, fell on the stairs at their Gwinnett County home and after a multiday stay at the hospital, was transferred to Cambridge Acute Care Center to recover from multiple broken bones.

“He was in that rehab facility because of his injuries?” Gray asked Kathy Walsh.

“Yeah. They wouldn’t send him home. They said he can’t even get out of bed on his own,” she said. “He was there for maybe a month and a half.”

But her husband’s death certificate says nothing about the fall or those injuries.

There are lines for that -- date of injury, place of injury, describe the injury -- all left blank.

“Had pneumonia at the end. That’s not on there,” Kathy Walsh said.

Instead, the official record of his death signed by Dr. Sam Ghaffari lists cardiac arrest, Parkinson’s disease and dementia.

But Bill Walsh did not have Parkinson’s. His wife has paperwork to prove it and he was not in the rehab facility for heart trouble, but because of his fall.

Still, it’s listed as a natural death not accidental.


“I wish it had been natural causes. I wish he had died at home, in bed. He didn’t. He suffered,” Kathy Walsh said.

Data shows Kathy Walsh is far from alone, in dealing with an incorrect death certificate.

A University of Wisconsin study in 2020 found 85% of the death certificates they examined had errors.

About 53% of those were classified as either major mistakes, or wrong, or missing causes of death.

“It happens all the time on government documents, on police reports, after crashes, on death certificates,” attorney Maggy Randals said.

Randals told Gray that each word on those official government documents is critically important when dealing with insurance companies and estates.

“These doctors, the people signing on the dotted line, they need to make sure that that information is right,” Randals said.

The Walshes have a $100,000 accidental death insurance policy that won’t pay because of what’s written on that death certificate.

“I want to honor his memory and my future with a corrected, amended death certificate to go to vital statistics,” Kathy Walsh said.

But for months, neither Ghafari or anyone at Cambridge has answered her repeated requests to fix the mistakes.

“He died from injuries from a fall where he never recovered,” Kathy Walsh said.

Over the course of two months, Channel 2 Action News has repeatedly called Cambridge, left messages for managers and even shown up in person asking for someone, anyone, to talk to us about how to fix this.

But nobody has ever responded to us either.

So, Gray tried calling Ghaffari directly. But again, no response.

“He should know better than to write something like this. He had all the records,” Kathy Walsh said.

While Ghaffari signed the death certificate, he never treated Bill Walsh -- never even met him.

Experts say that’s common at care facilities like Cambridge.

“Doctors should pay attention too because those words matter,” Randals said.

Gray also contacted the Georgia Department of Public Health, who told him that vital statistics can’t correct the documents on their own, the doctor or the facility has to request a change.

“We find out that one person determines how you’re going to live for the rest of your life and dishonors your spouse who suffered greatly,” Kathy Walsh.

Gray said it’s rare that he has this much trouble trying to get any response from a company about any story we’ve aired.

Gray and Channel 2 Action News has spent months getting nowhere with Cambridge and Ghaffari. They have not responded.

The Department of Public Health said the only other way to get a death certificate changed is with a court order signed by a judge.

Channel 2 Action News has connected Kathy Walsh to an attorney who has agreed to work on that pro bono.