'Almost unbearable' wait times for death certificates in Quebec return to normal

The long wait Quebec families faced last year to get a death certificate after a loved one died is over.

The Quebec government has delivered on a promise it made last summer to produce a death certificate within what's considered a normal waiting time, or about 10 days.

Without a death certificate in hand, it's impossible for a deceased person's executor to access that person's money, pay off funeral expenses, stop bill payments and cancel everything from cable service to car insurance.

However, for most of 2019, a backlog at the government's Directeur de l'état civil, or registrar of civil status — the agency responsible for registering births, marriages and death — meant funeral homes and families were left waiting as long as five months to obtain official proof that a person had died.

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Those long delays added to the distress of families mourning loved ones and trying to settle their affairs.

Cheryl Couchman had to wait four months for a death certificate after her sister died of cancer last May.

Unable to wrap up her sister's affairs, she and other relatives had to come up with close to $10,000 to pay off funeral expenses and keep up the loan payments on her car, which couldn't be sold or transferred to someone else without the death certificate.

Couchman described the emotional and financial pressure over that period as "almost unbearable."

Wait times back to normal

After hearing the outcry from families like Couchman's last summer, the minister responsible for the civil status registry, Jean Boulet, committed more money and staff to shorten the wait times before the year was out.

At the time, Boulet said a series of organizational upheavals, including taking on six new registries, as well as a shortage of workers, were to blame for processing delays.

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Some 20 additional people were hired to deal with the backlog, which had reached 25,000 files of births, deaths and marriages by last April, a ministry spokesperson said.

The ministry said the average processing time for registering a death went from nearly 40 working days in July to just seven last month.

Funeral homes hope extra staffing here to stay

Jane Blanchard, who handles death certificate applications for families at Montreal's Kane and Fetterly Funeral Home, has noticed a big improvement.

In the fall, she had applications that still hadn't been processed that dated back to April, which she said was putting a huge strain on families.

Since November, she said the waiting time has been under two weeks, and in some cases, less than that.

"I think it's actually better than it used to be," said Blanchard.

Having a death registered quickly means families can get will searches done and complete other paperwork linked to the provincial pension plan and death benefit.

Blanchard said she's worried that the government only hired the extra staff to get rid of the backlog. She hopes the government commits to keeping that level of staffing in place.

"I'm hoping this is a permanent change because, my goodness, it makes a difference for people."

CBC was unable to get a comment from the ministry about whether the staffing levels are permanent.