Under California law, a hierarchy of people of the power to authorize an autopsy as follows:
- Surviving spouse
- Surviving child
- Surviving parent
- Next of kin
California Gov. Code 27520 sets forth the persons with the power to authorize an autopsy and states:
The coroner may cause to be performed an autopsy on a decedent, for which an autopsy has already been performed, if the surviving spouse requests him or her to do so in writing. If there is no surviving spouse, the coroner may cause an autopsy to be performed if requested to do so in writing by a surviving child or parent, or, if there is no surviving child or parent, the next of kin of the deceased.
However, just because someone has the power to authorize an autopsy under California law does not mean that permission is required in every circumstance.
When Must An Autopsy Be Performed
There are four mandatory instances when the county coroner is required to conduct an autopsy, specifically:
- Suspicion of foul play
- Suspicion of infectious or contagious disease
- Infant death
- Inmate death
In the mandatory circumstances set forth above, the coroner does not need the family’s permission to conduct an autopsy.
In other situations, the coroner has the power to perform an autopsy if the coroner believes that further investigation is required. If the autopsy is discretionary, then family permission must be obtained.
A Decedent Can Object To An Autopsy On Religious Grounds In California
California is one of the few states that authorizes an objection to an autopsy on religious grounds. The objection is made by the decedent, by completing a Certificate of Religious Belief during decedent’s lifetime. California Gov. Code 27491.43 sets forth the requirements for the Certificate of Religious Belief, and the procedure for the coroner to follow when one is received.
Requirements For Certificate of Religious Belief
Under California Law, any person over 18 years old may execute a certificate of religious belief. The certificate must state clearly and unambiguously state that any “postmortem anatomical dissection” or specified procedures would violate the religious convictions of the person. A California decedent, therefore, has the power to stop an autopsy under California law.
The certificate must be signed and dated by the person in the presence of at least two witnesses. Each witness is also required to sign the certificate and shall print on the certificate his or her name and residence address.
What Is the Coroner Required To Do When Decedent Executed a Certificate of Religious Belief?
When the coroner, before beginning an autopsy or other procedure, has received a certificate of religious belief, the coroner shall not perform the autopsy or procedure.
If the coroner, before beginning an autopsy or other procedure, is informed by a relative or friend of the decedent that the decedent executed a certificate of religious belief, the coroner shall order the autopsy not be performed for 48 hours.
Even if there is a certificate of religious belief, a coroner may still cause an autopsy to be performed, or any other procedure, if the coroner has the reasonable suspicion that the death was caused by the criminal act of another or by a contagious disease constituting a public health hazard.