The Grammarphobia Blog

Who are immediate next of kin?

Q: I work for a medical examiner in Iowa and have a question about “immediate next of kin.” Specifically, can it apply to someone who is researching her ancestry and wants records concerning a deceased great-great-grandparent?

A: Ordinarily, “immediate next of kin” means spouse, children, parents, or siblings. In the case of a long-dead person who is of genealogical interest, no “immediate” next of kin may still be alive.

But what you need is a legal definition, not a general one. (We assume that the medical examiner you work for has had a request for records of a distant death.) Here is some of the information we’ve been able to gather.

A US Defense Department document, Glossary of Working Definitions, describes a deceased employee’s immediate next of kin as “usually the spouse, child(ren), parents, and siblings under special circumstances.” (The italics are in the document.)

Section 22.7 of the Iowa Code deals with public records that “shall be kept confidential, unless otherwise ordered by a court, by the lawful custodian of the records, or by another person duly authorized to release such information.”

The section lists “medical examiner records and reports” as confidential, it but says “autopsy reports shall be released to the decedent’s immediate next of kin” unless disclosure “would jeopardize an investigation or pose a clear and present danger to the public safety or the safety of an individual.”

Unfortunately there’s no definition of “immediate next of kin” in the section, at least none that we can find.

A website called Iowa Cold Cases says the only relatives entitled to an autopsy report are “the immediate and legal next of kin of the deceased (spouse, adult child, parent, adult sibling, grandparent, guardian).”

This website, however, doesn’t appear to be an official government site so we don’t know how authoritative it is.

What you need to find out is whether Iowa has a legal definition of “immediate next of kin.” We can’t find one. We’d suggest that you ask your county attorney to find out for you.

Logically, a great-great-grandparent might be too old to have any “immediate next of kin” living. In a case like that – one so old that it’s unlikely to jeopardize an investigation or endanger the public – perhaps a simple “next of kin” would do.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines “next of kin” as the “person or persons most closely related by blood” to the decedent.

Still, for genealogical purposes, a death certificate is a public record, and that would show the cause and manner of death.

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