What If Family Members Disagree on Autopsy?

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: Jay W. Marks, MD
    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD, is a board-certified internist and gastroenterologist. He graduated from Yale University School of Medicine and trained in internal medicine and gastroenterology at UCLA/Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

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What happens in the case grieving family members disagree as to whether an autopsy should be performed?

Doctor's response

Unless the case has medicolegal implications and an autopsy is ordered by the coroner or medical examiner, the next-of-kin of the deceased has the legal right to make the decision. A person's spouse is considered to be their nearest relative, followed by any adult children (usually in order of age from eldest to youngest), their own parents, and any siblings. Relatives by marriage (such as a daughter- or son-in-law) are never considered as next-of-kin. The pathologist must abide by the decision of the deceased's next-of-kin.

In rare cases there may be a question as to who is the closest relative. In such cases, the hospital legal department can help to clarify the situation and determine who has legal authority to give consent for an autopsy.

Medically reviewed by John A. Daller, MD; American Board of Surgery with subspecialty certification in surgical critical care


"Investigations and Autopsies"
Public Law Health Program
U.S. Centers for Disease Control

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Reviewed on 9/8/2017

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