We used data from the 1986 National Mortality Followback Survey to estimate the frequency of recording of diabetes on death certificates and to determine factors associated with recording of diabetes among decedents aged 25 years and older who died in the U.S. in 1986. Among 2766 decedents for whom a history of diabetes was provided by a personal informant, diabetes was recorded on an estimated 38.2% of death certificates and was listed as the underlying cause of death on an estimated 9.6%. The frequency of recording of diabetes was strongly related to age and duration of diabetes--among those aged 25-44 years who had had diabetes for 15 or more years, the frequency of recording was 71.9%. When other listed causes of death included conditions that may have been related to diabetes, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes was recorded between 45 and 70% of the time, depending on the other causes. Diabetes is usually not recorded on death certificates, and the likelihood of recording is related to decedent characteristics, particularly age, duration of diabetes, and co-morbidity.