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Woman wins battle over 30-year-old death certificate

After learning the state Comptroller's Office had unclaimed funds in her deceased aunt's name, Lois J. Reid set out to collect.

But it took Reid 10 months and two court orders before the Amherst town clerk would give Reid a copy of her aunt's 30-year-old death certificate, a document she needs to obtain a payout from her aunt's life insurance policy.

"It's like David vs. Goliath," Reid said of the ordeal.

Town officials, meanwhile, say they were merely following state law, and Reid didn't follow the correct procedures.

"She wasted a lot of people's time, including her own," said Town Attorney Stanley J. Sliwa.

The story illustrates how hard it can be to obtain records from government agencies. And it also shows the persistence of the 69-year-old Reid, who gets around with the assistance of a walker.

Reid's aunt, Margaret A. Reid, was born in Scotland in 1901 and emigrated to the United States where she lived with an aunt, uncle and cousin on Manhart Street in Buffalo. Tall and slender with a thick Scottish brogue, she was a homemaker who never married and had no children.

Margaret Reid died in January 1987 in Amherst at age 85.

Reid said she was bored one day and typed in her aunt's name on the state Comptroller's website for unclaimed funds. The state Comptroller's Office encourages people to search its database of forgotten money, which includes savings accounts, paychecks and other inactive accounts turned over to the state. Over $116 million has been returned so far this year.

Reid said she was surprised to learn from the comptroller's office that her aunt had taken out a small life insurance policy, paying a premium of just cents per week.

"I'm assuming she must have done that to cover her burial costs," Reid theorized.

But the policy's grand total of $1,782.97 was never paid out.

The comptroller's office told Reid a copy of her aunt's death certificate was required to process the claim. So almost one year ago, Reid went to the Amherst Town Clerk's Office to obtain it.

Amherst Town Clerk Marjory Jaeger

At the counter, she was told the clerk's office could mail a copy of the death certificate directly to the comptroller's office, but it wouldn't hand her one. That was fine, Reid said, but she also needed a copy to include with her affidavit to become the voluntary administrator of her aunt's estate in Erie County Surrogate's Court.

In New York, only a direct relative such as a spouse, parent, child or sibling, or the executor of a person's estate, may receive any copy of a vital record such as a birth or death certificate, said Town Clerk Marjory Jaeger, citing state Health Department law. Reid didn't fall into any of those categories, she said.

When a person doesn't meet that criteria, Jaeger's office will send a copy of the record directly to a government agency requesting it.

"That's a legal document that has Social Security numbers on it and other things on it," said Jaeger. "After four plus years in the clerk's office, that's been our standard operating procedure if it's not a defined family member."

Sliwa, the town attorney, agreed that Jaeger could not by law issue a copy directly to Reid without an order from Erie County Surrogate's Court.

But Reid points to the state Public Health law, which also states people who have "a documented lawful right or claim, documented medical need or a New York State Court Order" are entitled to a copy of a death certificate.

Reid maintains she had a documented lawful right or claim in the form of a letter from the state Comptroller's Office. She sued the Town of Amherst and Jaeger in Lackawanna's small claims court.

"It just seems like this is a lot of unnecessary grief to get a death certificate," Lackawanna City Court Judge Norman LeBlanc Jr. said, according to a transcript of the July 2016 proceeding provided by Reid.

LeBlanc determined that Reid had a legal right to receive the death certificate. But Sliwa said Amherst refused to comply with the order and appealed it because Reid erred in taking the case to small claims court.

"It's our position that Lackawanna City Court did not have jurisdiction to issue such an order in a small claims proceeding," the town attorney said.

Reid instead should have filed an Article 78 proceeding, which challenges a government action, he said. Or better yet, he said, Reid should have gone to the Erie County Surrogate's Court to get a judge's order.

"That's what she could've done and that's what she was told to do, multiple times by multiple people, including our office," Sliwa said.

"Completely untrue," Reid said of Sliwa's contention. She said her friend, an attorney, directed her to Surrogate's Court, where Judge Barbara Howe ordered Amherst in February to give Reid the death certificate.

The town complied. Reid received a copy of the death certificate in the mail several days later, 10 months after her first trip to the clerk's office.

Reid, who is active in Conservative Party politics, said she agreed to talk with a reporter about the dispute now because she feels she was mistreated by the clerk's office.

"She's supposed to represent us, not rule us," Reid said of Jaeger. "They should provide good customer service and not act like you're a nuisance to them."

And she believes the town clerk's policy needs to change.

"It's not just me," she said. "It's a lot of other people they're doing this to, as well."

Jaeger, a registered Conservative who earlier this month declared her candidacy for Amherst supervisor, said she had "suspicions" about the timing of Reid's complaints.

"It seems odd that after I declare candidacy for town supervisor that all of sudden there's someone who's dissatisfied," she said. "It's just unfortunate because that's not the way I like to do business. This is my job and I like to take care of folks."

Jaeger said this is the first time she's aware of the town being taken to court over access to a vital record.

Reid denied political motivations are behind her sharing her story.

It's still unclear whether she will ever receive the unclaimed funds from her aunt's life insurance policy. But if she ever does, Reid said she would split it three ways, with her sister and nephew, after an asset recovery company assisting them takes its cut.

Her portion would amount to only several hundred dollars.

"I'm persistent," said Reid. "Some people have other words for it."

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