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Who Can Authorize An Autopsy Under New York Law

Who can authorize an autopsy under New York Law depends on the circumstances of death, but generally include:

  • Spouse
  • Next of Kin
  • Coroner
  • Medical Examiner

When is There The Right to Perform An Autopsy?

The right to have an autopsy performed exists in defined circumstances set forth in NY CLS Pub Health § 4210.

At the direction of a coroner or medical examiner

A coroner who is a physician licensed to practice medicine, a coroner’s physician, and the county medical examiner can perform or direct the performance of an autopsy in the course of an investigation or upon the written request of a district attorney, sheriff, police chief, or superintendent of the state police.

At the direction of the spouse or next of kin

Under New York Public Health Code section 4210, the following persons may authorize an autopsy:

  • Spouse
  • Next of Kin

The spouse or next of kin of a decedent in New York has the power to authorize an autopsy under New York law for the sole purpose of ascertaining the cause of death.  An autopsy can also be authorized for any other purpose by written instrument specifying the purpose and extent of the autopsy.

The next of kin under New York law is the nearest relative of the decedent.  New York law provides a next of kin hierarchy that goes like this:

  • Spouse
  • Domestic Partner
  • Any child 18 or older
  • Either Parent
  • Any brother or sister 18 or older

Further down the line next of kin, if none of the above exist, are an authorized guardian, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews, grand-nieces and grand-nephews.  You must be over 18 to authorize an autopsy.

Limitations On Autopsies

New York law also provides that:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, in the absence of a compelling public necessity, no dissection or autopsy shall be performed over the objection of a surviving relative or friend of the deceased that such procedure is contrary to the religious belief of the decedent, or, if there is otherwise reason to believe that a dissection or autopsy is contrary to the decedent’s religious beliefs.

A compelling public necessity means:

  • The autopsy is essential to the conduct of a criminal investigation of a homicide; or
  • discovery of the cause of death is necessary to meet an immediate and substantial threat to the public health and that a dissection or autopsy is essential to ascertain the cause of death;
  • the need for a dissection or autopsy is established in accordance with subdivision five of this section (the medical examiner institutes a proceeding and must establish a demonstrable need for the autopsy).


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