A client recently sent us a copy of a letter she received “out of the blue” from a law firm who claimed to have reviewed state death certificate information and found that her late husband had died from a disease that is associated with asbestos exposure. She was troubled, felt her privacy was invaded, and wanted to know how this happens. We get it. We don’t do that kind of thing, but we also know that other attorneys do. After answering her questions, we thought other people might want to know the answers as well.

First – How does a person obtain this information?  Depending on where a person lives (or dies), death certificates (or certain information from death certificates) may be public records. In some states, a person can obtain death certificate information for any legal purpose. As long as the requester is not asking for the information to commit a crime, like identity theft, the state will provide the information. Other states require the requester to be a journalist, or even more strictly a family member.  In short, obtaining a death certificate or information contained on a death certificate is oftentimes legal.

Second – What information is available? Death certificates can include the name of the person who died, names of surviving spouses and children, along with specific information about when, where, and how a person died. Usually, death certificates also include the names of the decedent’s parents, whether they were in the military, and even what their job may have been.

Third – Can a law firm send a letter offering representation based on information that they get from a public record? Once again, the answer is usually yes. There are certain rules that govern attorneys and how they communicate with potential clients. The rules are varied depending on who makes the first contact and how contact is made. A law firm can send a letter specifically to a person to offer legal representation if they follow certain rules. Sometimes they may have to send a copy to the local bar association in advance, other times, they may have to disclose in the letter how they got the information.

Finally – What should a person do about a solicitation from a lawyer? It’s a solicitation, not a subpoena! You don’t need to do anything if a lawyer is offering you representation and you don’t want it. Simply, don’t reply – ignore it. If you get a letter like that and you want to learn more, you do some research online, find attorneys who handle that area of law, and call any one of them you want. Just because someone sends you a letter doesn’t mean you have to hire them.  Pick an attorney you like and trust, not just the first one you talk to.