5 minute read

After a Death: How Long Should You Keep Medical Bills and Records

After the death of a loved one, there are many questions to be answered, such as "how long should I hold onto their medical records?" Get the answer here.

Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks, @PatrickHicks

Head of Legal, Trust & Will

If a loved one recently passed away, you may discover a rather large collection of documents that they left behind. This is only natural, because as we get older, these things tend to pile up. (Even if they happened to be extremely organized about it.) If you were closest with them, then you may also find yourself tasked with sorting through all these records. Here, you may be wondering what you should keep and what you can toss. This article’s topic specifically pertains to documents you might find from their doctor’s office or insurance company. How long should you keep medical bills and records? Refer to this helpful guide.

How Long Do You Need to Keep Medical Records After Death of a Loved One?

We generally recommend keeping any type of important document three to seven years after the death of a loved one. There are no set legal requirements regarding the retention of medical records, so you should consider the specific circumstances regarding your loved one’s estate, such as probate concerns or unpaid medical bills. 

Institutions often have institutional policies, national organizations, and local laws that govern how long they must retain medical records for patients. For example many medical institutions have a retention policy period of three to seven years. This can provide a good general rule of thumb. 

It’s also a good idea to consider the immediate needs, legal requirements, and family preferences when setting a document retention policy for your deceased loved one. We expand on these important considerations in the next section.

Why Do You Need to Keep Medical Records After the Death of a Loved One?

You’ll find it helpful and necessary to keep medical records after the death of a loved one for several reasons:

1. Immediate Needs: In the immediate aftermath of a loved one's death, you may need to access their medical records for various purposes, such as settling their estate, notifying insurance companies, or providing information to other healthcare providers. It's a good idea to keep these records readily accessible during this period.

2. Legal Requirements: While there may not be specific legal requirements dictating how long you should keep medical records of a deceased loved one, it's essential to comply with any legal obligations related to estate settlement, probate, or outstanding medical bills. Consult with legal professionals handling the estate for guidance.

3. Family Preferences: If you're unsure about how long to keep the records, consult with other family members or individuals involved in managing the deceased person's affairs. Their input and preferences can be valuable in making a decision.

What Types of Medical Records Should I Keep?

When a loved one passes away, it's essential to keep certain types of medical records for various practical and legal reasons. Here are the types of medical records you should consider retaining:

1. Death Certificate: This is one of the most crucial documents to keep. It's necessary for legal purposes, such as settling the deceased person's estate, obtaining life insurance benefits, and making funeral arrangements.

2. Medical History: Collect and keep a comprehensive medical history of the deceased person, including details of their chronic illnesses, past surgeries, medications, and any significant medical events. This information can be valuable for future medical care or for sharing with family members.

3. Recent Medical Records: Keep copies of the deceased person's recent medical records, including hospital discharge summaries, doctor's notes, and test results. These records may be needed for legal or insurance claims and can provide insights into the individual's health leading up to their passing.

4. Prescription Records: Maintain records of any prescription medications the deceased person was taking, including dosage information and the prescribing healthcare provider's contact information.

5. Advance Directives and Living Will: If the deceased person had an advance healthcare directive or a living will, make sure to keep these documents. They can provide guidance on the individual's wishes regarding medical treatment and end-of-life care.

6. Health Insurance Information: Keep copies of health insurance policies and related documents. These may be necessary for processing medical claims or addressing outstanding bills.

7. Hospital Contact Information: Keep contact information for the hospitals, clinics, and healthcare providers that were involved in the deceased person's care. This information can be helpful if you need to request medical records or resolve any outstanding issues.

8. Correspondence: Retain any correspondence or communication related to the deceased person's healthcare, such as letters from healthcare providers, insurance companies, or billing statements.

9. Receipts and Invoices: Keep records of medical bills, receipts, and invoices related to the deceased person's medical care. These documents may be needed for accounting and financial purposes.

10. Funeral and Burial Records: While not medical records, it's essential to keep records related to the funeral and burial arrangements, including receipts and contracts with funeral homes or cemeteries.

11. Legal Documents: If there are any legal documents related to the deceased person's medical care, such as power of attorney for healthcare, guardianship papers, or do-not-resuscitate (DNR) orders, keep these as well.

12. Contact Information: Maintain a list of contact information for healthcare professionals who cared for the deceased person. This can be helpful for obtaining additional medical records or clarifying any medical details.

It's crucial to keep these records organized and stored securely. Consider using a dedicated folder or electronic storage method to ensure that you can access the information when needed, especially for legal and financial matters related to the deceased person's estate. If you have any questions or concerns about which records to retain, consult with legal professionals or healthcare providers for guidance specific to your situation.

Commonly Asked Questions About How Long to Keep Medical Records

So far, we’ve addressed what types of medical records you should keep following the death of a loved one, and for how long. Next, we’ll answer some follow-up questions you may have.

Should all medical records be kept indefinitely?

Not necessarily. In most cases, you can dispose of most medical records when you are confident that they are no longer needed, such as when all outstanding bills and invoices have been satisfied, and the decedent’s estate has been settled. However, it’s important to make these decisions with care. To play it safe, you can hold on to medical records for seven years. 

How long do you have to keep Medicare records?

Each state provides its own set of guidelines governing how long medical records are kept, including Medicare records. These guidelines are typically set forth for medical care providers, not consumers. However, you can refer to these guidelines as a general rule of thumb. HIPAA rules require that Medicare providers retain documents for at least 6 years from the date of creation. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services requires that providers retain patient records for at least 10 years.

What health records should I keep?

Refer to our previous section titled “What Types of Medical Records Should I Keep?” for a detailed list of health records to retain for a deceased loved one.

Make Finding Medical Documents Easy with Trust & Will

Ultimately, the decision on how long to keep medical records after the death of a loved one depends on your individual circumstances, legal requirements, and personal preferences. It's important to strike a balance between maintaining the records for practical purposes and respecting the privacy and memory of your loved one. If you have any doubts or legal questions, consult with legal professionals who can provide guidance specific to your situation.

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