What to Do When a Loved One Dies

Whether it has been expected because of long illness, or it’s due to a surprise event like an accident or sudden health event, it can be quite shocking when someone passes away. After the initial jolt fades, and you are working through grief on your way to acceptance, there are practical tasks that must be taken care of—especially if the job of handling the bureaucratic details falls to you. Below is a list from the AARP of things that need to be handled after someone dies.

The first thing to know is that it’s not ALL up to you. You will need help with certain aspects of this to-do list. The list provided here will give you a sense of where help is needed and where you can go to get it. It is broken into three parts: what to do immediately after the death, within a few days, and in two weeks or so afterwards. The version below is a summary only. For more in-depth information please refer to this article on AARP’s website here.

To Do Immediately

Get a legal pronouncement of death

An official declaration of death is the first step to getting a death certificate—something you will need for all future legal steps. This must be done by a medical professional. If the deceased was in the hospital at time of death, the hospital will handle this for you. If your relative died at home under hospice care, the hospice nurse will handle this. If the death was not expected, call 911. They will send an ambulance which will transport the body to a hospital where death will be officially declared and documented. The hospital will also transfer the body to a funeral home.

Tell friends and family

How you handle sharing the loss with friends and family is a personal decision. You will most likely want to talk to certain people in person or by phone. To track down other people who need to know, you can look through their email and mobile phone contacts if you have access. It’s also a good idea to inform institutions that the deceased was involved with, like their social clubs. You may also want to post to social media—both to their account, if you have access, and yours.

Find out about existing funeral and burial plans

If the person was in the hospital or hospice, you likely already have this information. If the death was unexpected, you’ll have to do some research. Look for a letter of instruction in the deceased’s papers. If one does not exist, then it’s time to start planning. A good first step is to call a family meeting to discuss it. Talk about what you think the person wanted in terms of a funeral, what you can afford, and what the family wants.

To Do Within a Few Days

Make funeral, burial, or cremation arrangements

If a prepaid burial plan does not exist, you’ll need to choose a funeral home and decide on all the specifics. It’s a good idea to research funeral prices to help you make informed decisions.

Be sure to get help from friends and family: you may need volunteers to be pall bearers, to give eulogies, to plan the service, to keep a list of well-wishers, to write thank-you notes, to plan and arrange a wake or post-funeral gathering, etc.

If the person was in the military or belonged to a religious group, contact the Veterans Administration or the specific organization to see if it offers burial benefits or conducts funeral services.

You may want to get a friend or relative who is a good writer to put together an obituary.

Secure the deceased’s property

Lock up their house and cars. Secure cash, jewelry, and other valuables from the home. Get the mail and remove spoilable foods from the refrigerator. Ask a neighbor to water the plants.

Provide care for pets

Make sure pets have caretakers until there’s a permanent plan for them. Having them stay with a relative who can comfort them is the best choice.

Forward mail

Go to the post office and put in a forwarding order to send the mail to yourself or whoever is working with you to see to the immediate affairs. This will also help you learn what subscriptions, creditors, and other accounts will need to be canceled or paid.

Notify the deceased’s employer

When you speak to their employer be sure to ask about benefits and any paychecks that may be due, including a company-wide life insurance policy, which many large companies have.

Within Two Weeks After Death

Secure certified copies of death certificates

Make several copies of the death certificate since you will need it to close and cancel accounts, file insurance claims, and register the death with the government. The funeral home can get copies on your behalf, or you can order them from the vital statistics office in the state in which the person died.

Find the will and identify the executor

If the death was expected, you most likely discussed the will already with your relative. If not, look for it wherever they kept important papers (in a desk, a safe-deposit box, etc.). Wills generally name who is chosen as executor. This person will need to be involved in most of the steps going forward. If there isn’t a will, then as part of the probate process the probate court judge will name an administrator in place of an executor.

Meet with a trusts and estates attorney

If you don’t already have an estate lawyer, and if the estate is worth more than $50,000, you should consider hiring one to help navigate the process and distribute assets. The attorney must be chosen and/or approved by the executor.

Contact a CPA

Use your relative’s CPA if they had one. If not, hire one. The estate may have to file a tax return, and the deceased will have to file a final return. It’s critical to have these done correctly.

Initiate probate

Probate is the legal process of executing a will. It is done through the county or city probate court office. The process ensures that the person’s debts and liabilities are paid and that the remaining assets are transferred to the beneficiaries. The probate process takes an average of 16 months in the United States to complete. If you are a beneficiary and need your inheritance funds sooner, consider getting an inheritance advance.

Inventory all assets

Probate typically starts with an inventory of all assets—bank accounts, houses, cars, brokerage accounts, personal property, furniture, jewelry, etc., all of which will need to be filed in the court. Consider hiring an appraiser if there are a substantial amount of physical items that need to be valued.

Track down assets

To inventory all the assets, you must find all the assets. This can be a big job. If the estate is large, there are search firms that can help you track down assets in exchange for a fee. But this can also be done yourself. Start with a close examination of the deceased’s tax returns, mail, email, brokerage and bank accounts, deeds, and titles. Be sure to check all filing cabinet and any safe- deposit boxes.

Make a list of bills

All outstanding debts will need to be settled for the estate to close, so provide the executor with a list of these expenses.

Cancel services no longer needed 

Some examples include things like the cable, cell phone service and subscriptions. 

Notify institutions of the death

  • The Social Security Administration
  • Life insurance companies
  • Banks, financial institutions
  • Financial advisers, stockbrokers
  • Credit agencies

Cancel driver’s license

This prevents identity theft. Contact the motor vehicle department for specific instructions, but you’ll need acopy of the death certificate. Keep a copy of the canceled driver’s license in your records. You may need it to close or access accounts that belonged to the deceased.

Close credit card accounts

Contact customer service and tell the representative that you’re closing the account on behalf of adeceased relative who had a sole account. You’ll need a copy of the death certificate for this as well. Keep records of accounts you close and inform the executor of any outstanding balances on the cards. Credit bureaus, as part of their regular reporting process, will also send card issuers an alert that your relative has died. Be sure to cut up your dead loved one’s credit cards, so they aren’t lost or stolen.

Terminate insurance policies

Contact providers to end coverage for the deceased on home, auto and health insurance policies, and ask that any unused premium be returned.

Delete or memorialize social media accounts

You can delete social media accounts, but some survivors choose to turn them into a memorial for their loved one instead. Whether you choose to delete or memorialize, you’ll need to contact the companies with copies of the death certificate.

Close email accounts

To prevent identity theft and fraud, shut down the deceased’s email account. If you don’t have access, you’ll need copies of the death certificate to cancel an email account. The specifics vary by email provider, but most require a death certificate and verification that you are a relative or the estate executor.

Update voter registration

Contact your state or county directly to find out how to remove your dead relative from the voting rolls.