Who can authorize an autopsy under Texas law?
Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, Article 49.33 provides a list of people who are authorized to provide consent to an autopsy (also called an inquest) under Texas law:
- The spouse of the decedent;
- The person acting as guardian of the person of the decedent at the ime of death or the executor or administrator of the decedent’s estate;
- The adult children of the decedent;
- The parents of the decedent; and
- The adult siblings of the decedent.
Consent to the autopsy may be given by any member of the above classes, in the order of priority listed.
If another member of the class files an objection to the autopsy with the physician, medical examiner, justice of the peace, or county judge, then consent may be given only by a majority of the members of the class who are reasonably available.
If someone of a higher priority class is reasonably available to give consent or to object, a person of a lower class may not authorize the autopsy under Texas law.
What if No One Consents To the Autopsy?
If an autopsy is not required under Texas law (discussed below), a physician must have written informed consent from an authorized person.
If the physician, after due diligence, is unable to contact an authorized person for consent, the physician can still perform an autopsy under certain circumstances.
The autopsy must be authorized by a medical examiner, justice of the peace, or county judge. The autopsy must be performed between 24-48 hours after death or from the time the physician took possession of the body.
When Is An Autopsy Required?
In certain limited circumstances, an autopsy is required. This means consent as discussed above is not required. These circumstances include:
- Certain inmate deaths;
- Unnatural deaths from a cause other than legal execution;
- The body or body part of a person is found, the cause or circumstances of death are unknown, and: a) the person is identified; or b) the person is unidentified;
- The circumstances of death indicate that the death may have been caused by unlawful means;
- The person commits suicide or the circumstances of the death indicate that the death may have been caused by suicide;
- The person dies without having been attended by a physician;
- The person dies while attended by a physician who is unable to certify the cause of death and who requests the justice of the peace to conduct an inquest; or
- The person is a child younger than six years of age and an inquest is required by Chapter 264, Family Code.