When a close family member or loved one dies, having to deal with funeral arrangements and the estate of your loved one can make a sad event more difficult to bear. Having a plan in place beforehand can help you know that you are carrying out your loved one’s wishes and keep you from having to make a lot of decisions while you are mourning.
Also, dealing with all the details that must be taken care of after you lose a loved one can be overwhelming, so divide responsibilities with other family members if you can, or with an outside party who handles some or all of these things if finances permit.
What to do when a loved one passes away:
Here is a checklist of items that will need to be taken care of after a loved one passes away, including some items that can be done in advance for if you plan ahead or if you know that your loved one does not have long to live.
Know Where Important Documents Are Kept
Tracking down accounts and important documents after your loved one’s death can be very stressful. If you and your loved one have the opportunity, make sure that important documents are in a secure location that you have access to. Make sure this includes logins and passwords for digital accounts, as getting access to many of those can be challenging.
Prepare an Advance Healthcare Directive
Ask your loved one to prepare an advance health care directive, so that their wishes are documented in case they reach a point where they are unconscious and terminally ill and cannot make their own decisions about treatment or resuscitation.
Talk Through End-of-Life Wishes
This includes burial vs. cremation, where to be buried or spread ashes, organ donation, will, and even funeral/memorial service and obituary. If you can, talk through these things beforehand and write them down. These sorts of wishes can be outlined in a last will and testament, and can be funded or handled with more specificity via a trust. Helping your friend or loved one to outline their wishes before their passing will make things much less stressful for everyone afterwards.
To Do Immediately After:
Obtain a legal pronouncement of death
After your loved one has passed, you need a legal pronouncement of death (different from a death certificate). If there is a doctor present, they can make the pronouncement (nurses also can, in a number of states). If the death occurs at home with no hospice care, call 911.
Paramedics may be able to make the pronouncement or may transport your loved one to a hospital for a doctor to do it. The date and time listed on the pronouncement of death form will be the official time of death.
If the death was unexpected, traumatic, or suspicious, or the cause of death is not apparent, an autopsy may need to be done by the county coroner’s office. Some counties cover the cost, and others charge a fee for the autopsy.
Check for organ donation wishes
This step is urgent because the organs will not be viable for long after death. If organ donation is specified (usually on driver’s license or in advance medical directive), and your loved one did not die in a hospital, contact the nearest hospital to make arrangements for possible organ donation.
Out-of-state or country death
If your loved one died while outside of the state or the country, and you would like to have a traditional burial service in your hometown, you will need to arrange to have the body transported. A funeral home can assist you in arranging transportation from another city or state.
Transporting the body from outside the country is more expensive and somewhat more complicated. If your loved one was an American citizen, you can contact the U.S. Consulate in the country where the death occurred and they will help you with the necessary forms and arrangements.
Contact close family and friends and let them know
Also contact the deceased’s doctor, if they were not present, and their lawyer if they have one.
Make arrangements for the deceased’s dependents (if any)
If your loved one has left behind any dependent children or grandchildren, make temporary arrangements for their care until the permanent guardians can be sorted out. Likewise, if your loved one left behind any pets that need to be taken care of, make temporary arrangements for their care.
Locate any written instructions about funeral arrangements
Check for any documents specifying burial plan or end-of-life wishes (usually in a will or trust documents), and comply with instructions as far as possible. If there were no instructions left and your loved one’s wishes are not known, then decide on funeral arrangements with immediate family.
You will likely want 10-20 certified copies of the death certificate. This will facilitate any dealings you will have with banks and other accounts. You will need a certified copy of the death certificate for every major asset, like homes, property, cars, bank accounts, etc., that will require a transfer of ownership, as well as for insurance policies, annuities, and veterans’ survivor benefits.
This part isn’t cheap—each certified copy can cost $20+, so if the cost is a concern, check first which accounts or companies require a certified copy rather than a photocopy.
Make sure that any of the deceased’s property is secure. If the home will be vacant, you can call the police on the non-emergency line and/or the landlord and let them know.
Contact the post office
Have the postal service forward mail to you. This way mail won’t pile up at your loved one’s mailbox and you will also have a good idea of what accounts need to be taken care of.
Making Funeral or Memorial Service Arrangements
The full burden of planning for a funeral and services should not fall to one person–share the burden with other close family and loved ones, or an outside funeral planning service if that works for everyone.
Consult family and written instructions (if any) to make important decisions about funeral arrangements
If instructions for funeral arrangements were not left by your loved one, some of the things that you will need to decide include:
- Whether to embalm or cremate the body
- Whether there will be an open or closed casket funeral
- Where the burial site will be
- What kind of headstone to buy
- What to do with the ashes if the body will be cremated
- What religious aspects should be incorporated in the funeral arrangements
It would be helpful to set a budget before making your plans, and modifying your plans if necessary to fit that budget (here's how to plan a memorial service on a budget.) Funeral arrangements are a tribute to your loved one, and a step on the path to healing for those who are mourning, but should also be realistic. There are some surprising options available these days, which could be worth checking out.
Schedule funeral or memorial service and notify friends and family
Choose a funeral home and meet with the director to discuss funeral or cremation arrangements and any related services.
Enlist the help of other family members and friends to announce the funeral or memorial service. If your loved one belonged to a church or other organizations, reach out to those organizations to let them know about the service. You can also reach out to contacts from your loved one’s address books and email or social media contacts if desired.
This could be published in the newspaper or solely online. You can write the obituary yourself or ask a family member to do it, and publish in the local newspaper (for a fee) or online. The funeral home may offer you the option of publishing the obituary online for free. It’s also possible that the desired contents of the obituary were specified in the deceased’s will, so make sure to check.
Plan funeral/memorial service
Decide who you want to speak at the service, and ask friends and relatives to serve as pallbearers (if there is to be a burial). If there will be a printed program for the service, have it printed and assign one or two people to distribute the programs before the service.
Arrange for music to be played before and after the service, if appropriate. If your loved one was religious, you may want to ask one of their religious leaders to speak or officiate at the service.
Organize post-service meal or gathering
If you have family and friends coming in from out of town, or if it is otherwise part of family or community tradition, plan a post-service meal at a local church, park, or family member’s home. Ask friends and family to help plan or bring food to share.
To Do: Next Steps
There are a number of things that you can do to facilitate the management of your loved one’s estate and to prevent identify theft or fraud. When you notify Social Security, for example, that takes care of stopping or changing Social Security benefits checks but also prevents someone else from fraudulently collecting your loved one’s Social Security benefits.
There may be many accounts that need to be closed or transferred, so it is helpful if the deceased left behind a list of accounts with contact info and account number.
Notify Social Security
If this has not been handled by the funeral director, make sure to notify Social Security of your loved one’s death. It is best to do this within 30 days of your loved one’s passing, because if they were receiving checks from Social Security, any amounts paid after their death must be repaid. Also, the surviving spouse may be eligible for increased personal benefits.
Review bills to pay
If you do not have a list of accounts or monthly bills to be paid, having your loved one’s mail forwarded to you may help you become aware of outstanding bills and accounts. If there is a mortgage bill, that is especially important. You can send the bills to the estate executor or administrator to make sure they are paid.
Contact utility companies to stop service or to transfer to someone else’s name.
If there is a will, the executor will choose an attorney to handle probate. If there is no will, a probate court will name an administrator to handle the estate inventory and other requirements of the probate court. If the deceased had a trust and assets were correctly transferred to that prior to their passing, the assets in the trust are not subject to probate.
Let the deceased’s insurance company (or their employer) know to end coverage, but make sure to keep any dependent coverage in place.
If your loved one had a life insurance policy, contact the insurance company to begin filing the necessary claim forms. They will require a certified death certificate to begin processing the claim.
Other insurance policies
If your loved one had other insurance policies, such as auto insurance, homeowner’s insurance, renter’s insurance, etc., contact each provider to cancel the policies. They may also require a copy of the death certificate.
If your loved one had financial advisers managing stock or other assets, contact them to determine account beneficiaries. Beneficiaries can usually get access to the account by filling out the appropriate forms and providing a copy of the death certificate.
Mortgage companies and banks
Contact mortgage companies and banks to close accounts or transfer ownership. You will need to provide a copy of the death certificate if you do not have joint access to the accounts.
Credit card accounts
Contact credit card companies to close any accounts that your loved one had. If there are any cards with outstanding debt, make sure you notify the estate administrator.
Send a photocopy of the deceased’s death certificate to each of the three credit bureaus to help prevent identity theft.
PO Box 105139, Atlanta, GA 30348
PO Box 4500, Allen, TX 75013
PO Box 2000, Chester, PA 19022
Cancel driver’s license
You can cancel your loved one’s driver’s license by providing a copy of the death certificate to your local department of motor vehicles. Having their name removed from DMV records can help prevent identity theft.
Cancel email and other online accounts
If you do not have plans to access your loved one’s email and other online accounts, contact administrators to close the accounts. Some providers may require a copy of the death certificate or other identity verification.
Notify election board
Let your local election board know that the deceased should be removed from their records. Although using voter fraud using the name of deceased individuals is uncommon, it could happen.
Contact tax preparer
A tax return may need to be filed for your loved one and for their estate. Contact a tax preparer to help you take care of the necessary taxes.
There’s a LOT to do, which is why it is often recommended to name non-family members as an executor of the will and trustee of the trust if they have one. This leaves family members free to grieve while someone handles the other difficult aspects. Having a well-structured will, as well as a trust if you want to get really granular, can help to streamline this process greatly.