Months-long wait for death certificates taking emotional, financial toll on Quebec families
Average wait time in the province is 3 times the national average — or more
Cheryl Couchman says she's barely had time to grieve her sister, Heather, who died of cancer in May.
Instead, Couchman, who is the executor of her sister's will, is preoccupied with trying to settle her estate. She can't do that until she receives Heather's official death certificate.
But wait times for death certificates in Quebec have increased to three times the national average, or more, adding to the distress of families mourning loved ones and trying to settle their affairs.
Couchman says at first the funeral home told her it would take about five or six weeks to get the certificate. But her wait has dragged on for more than three months.
"You keep thinking you're going to get it in the mail, like that week, or the next week," she said.
Couchman and her family have paid more than $10,000 out of pocket because they were unable to resolve some of her sister's bills and close some of her accounts.
"I've been through some things in my lifetime that added pressure. This, it's almost unbearable," she said.
Couchman has tried to find out the reason for the holdup by calling Quebec's civil status registry directly, the government department responsible for processing death certificates, but says she can't get through to an agent.
Couchman said she only gets a recorded message saying there is a high volume of people waiting on hold and to call back later, and is then disconnected.
"There's really no other way you can contact them," she said.
"You are at their mercy."
Death certificate essential
More than 60,000 Quebecers die every year, according to Statistics Canada.
A death certificate is an essential document for many people to wind up the affairs of deceased loved ones.
Issued by the province, it's often needed to access a loved one's money, pay off funeral expenses, stop bill payments and cancel everything from driver's licences to car registration and insurance.
It also makes it easier, and cheaper, to do will and life insurance searches.
Across Canada, the average wait for a death certificate is 10 days, plus mailing time, according to figures compiled by CBC News.
Alberta, Newfoundland and British Columbia are the fastest, ranging from one to five days. In Ontario, it takes a little over two weeks.
In Quebec, it's supposed to be 10 days, but for the past year the average processing time is between 30 and 40 business days.
Several funeral directors and families told CBC News the wait is often much longer than that.
'I don't think it's acceptable'
Jane Blanchard handles death certificate applications for clients at Montreal's Kane and Fetterly funeral home, which holds about 300 funerals a year.
Thumbing through a pile of 30 cases for which she is still waiting for certificates, some of the oldest applications date back to April.
"Some May, some June. Forget about July. August? Don't even talk about it, because we're not getting those for a while," said Blanchard, an aftercare counsellor.
Blanchard started noticing a dramatic slowdown in the government's response time last summer.
"They were saying there were many weddings, people on vacation, new staff — that was last August," she said.
A year later, the situation hasn't improved, and calling the civil status registry doesn't help. In fact, funeral homes were specifically told not to call to follow up until two months after a death.
If there's a problem or missing information in the file, Blanchard said, they won't know or be able to correct it in a timely way.
Families are frustrated and Blanchard understands they feel stuck. Some can't pay the funeral costs or list properties for sale until they have a death certificate.
"I don't think it's acceptable," said Blanchard. "Unfortunately, we've become used to it, so it's the norm."
Civil status registry in disarray
The government acknowledges there's a backlog.
Vincent Breton, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Solidarity, which oversees the civil status registry, said there have been several "organizational upheavals" in the department over the past 24 months.
It's now responsible for six new registries, including the gun registry.
A shortage of workers in the ministry has created a backlog and led to existing staff feeling overworked, he said in an email.
Labour Minister Jean Boulet empathizes with families who are waiting.
"I am extremely preoccupied by those processing times," said Boulet, who added he knows how important it is for people to settle estates quickly.
"I've put a plan of action [in place] to shorten those times as quickly as possible."
This summer, the ministry hired 20 new people to work exclusively on the death certificate backlog.
It's also asking funeral homes, notaries and families to make sure the information they submit is complete.
Boulet expects the department will be able to get wait times back to normal by the end of the year.
Emotional, financial toll
That's little consolation for Couchman.
Besides funeral costs, Couchman has her sister's outstanding bills to pay. The largest expense is the monthly car loan payment.
Heather Couchman's Hyundai has sat in her driveway on the West Island since her death. They can't sell it or transfer ownership without her death certificate, so they have to keep making loan payments to avoid having it repossessed.
"You don't sleep at night, your head is [swirling]: What's my next step, what's my next step?" said Couchman.
She'd like to see a simpler death certificate system put in place where families can track their applications.
If there is missing information, she says it should be flagged right away so the details can be sent via email.
That way, Couchman says, families could at least foresee when the estate could be wrapped up and begin the grieving process.
"I'd really like to take five minutes to myself and remember her, you know? But I haven't been able to do that. I really haven't."
Update: Cheryl Couchman received her sister's death certificate Sept. 11, four months and two days after she applied for it, and a week after this story first ran.
"It is such a bittersweet day indeed," Couchman wrote CBC in an email.
"I can move on getting a lot of paperwork done and have some closure for our family. It is so sad that we had to expose them through the media and I hope the government gets why it is so important to process these much faster than they do."
With files from Anna Sosnowski