Published: Sep 15, 2010 11:31 PM EDT
Updated: Sep 15, 2010 6:13 PM EDT

FORT MYERS, Fla. - A South Carolina woman spends weeks waiting to bury her dead sister, all because of one missing signature.

Marci Brado lost her 66 year old sister Maxine Ditta suddenly in August.

"It was a hard thing," said Brado speaking about the loss.

Brado could only grieve her sister's loss by looking through pictures. She couldn't hold a funeral because no one would sign Maxine's death certificate.

"We can't do anything. She's been at the funeral home for 20 days in the freezer. They can't embalm her. They can't do anything. Nothing can be done til the death certificate is actually signed," said Brado.

The death certificate is an important legal document. Without it, families can't begin funeral arrangements. They can't execute a will or receive life insurance benefits. Without it, the person is legally still living.

Dr. Judith Hartner with the Lee County Health Department says according to Florida law, the physician on record must sign the death certificate.

She says sometimes in cases like Maxine's, where she died suddenly and had both a primary care doctor and a cardiologist, it's tough to get a doctor to sign.

"The specialist says 'Well the primary care doctor should sign.' The primary care doctor says 'The specialist should sign.' And they both say the Emergency Room doctor should sign," said Dr. Hartner.

Doctors may not sign for a variety of reasons. Sometimes doctors might be afraid their signature may set them up for a malpractice lawsuit. Other times, they simply haven't cared for the patient on a regular basis and may be uncomfortable determining the cause of death. Then there are other cases, like Maxine's, where there are many doctors involved.

Dr. Hartner estimates it happens once a month.

"We understand families need to have a death certificate,"  said Hartner, "Our vital statistics people become detectives trying to find out who else what other physician did your loved one see."

While the heath department searches for someone to sign, families like Brado's are left waiting.

"People need to know what's going on out there and I don't wish this on any family. This has been a horrible thing for us," said Brado.

Both the funeral home and the health deparment told CALL FOR ACTION their their hands were tied until a physician signed this death certificate.
We called Lee Memorial, where Ditta was a patient,  and asked why a doctor had not signed the death certificate. Lee Memorial called back to say they had resolved the situation. Brado let us know the Emergency Room doctor went to the funeral home and signed the death certificate. So now almost a month later--her family can start planning her sister's funeral.