Losing a loved one is one of the most difficult things a person can experience. In fact, it can trigger a mental and emotional fog that lasts for days or weeks, impeding the ability to make decisions concerning the deceased’s final affairs. It would be ideal to have a plan in place in advance of your loved one passing away, but that’s not always possible.
So what do you do when a loved one dies? To make the situation a bit easier to manage, I’ve outlined the various steps you need to follow below, along with some estimated timeframes.
Table of Contents
Communicating with Your Loved One
One of the best ways to be prepared for a loved one’s death in advance is to discuss their last wishes with them. But for many, it’s not an easy conversation to have. Many of us have difficulty accepting the reality of our own deaths, let alone those close to us.
But communicating with your loved one is the first best step to knowing what to do when that dreaded day arrives. It’s easier if you and your loved one are comfortable with the subject. If not, you’ll need to approach things gradually and with proper sensitivity. Sometimes, another family member may have to take the lead.
If your loved one is unwilling to entertain the conversation, or if that person is facing a terminal illness and doesn’t want to discuss it, it may be best to get professional advice from a counselor or a hospital social worker.
And in some situations, a family member may not be the best person to engage your loved one in this conversation. In that case, you may want to request the discussion be conducted by a nonfamily member, such as another person close to your loved one, and considered to be a trusted source.
What to Have Ready in Advance
As much as possible, you or your loved one should have the following prepared in advance and available to potential survivors:
- A copy of the most recent will or any trust agreements.
- End-of-life directives, like a living will or a do-not-resuscitate (DNR) order.
- Contact information for key people. This should include family, close friends, and professional contacts.
- List of all financial accounts, including account numbers.
- Any life insurance policies in force.
- A list of creditors, including details on home mortgages, car loans, credit cards, student loans, and personal obligations.
- Location of important documents, including income tax returns, marriage licenses, birth certificates, and others a person considers important.
It may not be possible to have access to all items, but the more, the better. Also, try to be aware of any significant changes to the information you receive.
1. Steps to Take Immediately
To the degree possible, take the following steps as soon as you become aware of the person’s death:
- Review the documentation above to be familiar with the decedent’s last wishes and major possessions and obligations. In particular, be aware of any desired final arrangements, such as burial.
- Ensure any medical staff involved has prepared an official declaration of death, as this document will be needed to make final arrangements until a death certificate is available.
- Reach out to other family members and close friends to notify them of the death and other important information. In particular, you should notify anyone you believe will want to be involved in deciding funeral arrangements.
- Notify the decedent’s house of worship, if applicable.
- If the decedent was employed, contact the employer as soon as possible.
- Unless an autopsy is required, make arrangements to transport the body to the funeral home. However, many funeral homes will handle this detail if they are contacted immediately.
- Make arrangements for the care of the decedent’s dependents, including pets.
- Secure the decedent’s home and property, including motor vehicles and any other important possessions not already stored within the home.
Meeting with the funeral home. Sometimes, family members will meet with the funeral director on the day of the person’s death or the very next day. But this step will depend on how quickly other family members will want to make this move.
2. Steps to Take Within Two to Three Days
- Arrange for the funeral if this has not already been done.
- Find out if your loved one had a burial plot, mausoleum, or a plan to be cremated.
- Place an obituary in the local newspaper to alert family and friends of any funeral arrangements. In many cases, the funeral home will handle this step for you.
- Sort out which family and friends will participate in the funeral, i.e., who will provide eulogies, act as pallbearers, or take part in any other aspect of the arrangements.
- If the remains will need to be transported to another state, the details should be worked out between the local funeral home and the destination funeral home.
- Arrange mail forwarding with the local post office to yourself, the executor, or a designated other party. But be prepared to collect any delivered mail, as this process may take several days to complete.
Steps to Take in the First Week
- If the loved one is collecting Social Security or is on Medicare, contact the Social Security Administration to end benefit payments. If this step is not completed, the Administration can require repayment of any unearned benefits out of the estate.
- You’ll need to do the same if your loved one is receiving VA benefits or payments from an employer pension plan. The Veterans Administration can be contacted at 800-827-1000. If it’s an employer pension plan, you’ll need to contact either the human resources department of the company or the pension administrator.
- Obtain copies of the death certificate, which the funeral home can usually provide. Get at least ten certified copies, as you will need them in dealing with many financial institutions.
- Contact any banks or investment brokers where your loved one has accounts to advise them of his or her passing. You should also check with each institution to see what their procedures are. Be sure to inquire if your loved one has a safe deposit box.
- Contact any life insurance companies where your loved one has policies. This will be a necessary step to file a benefit claim.
- Contact utility companies for your loved one’s home to cancel any services or reduce others. For example, you’ll want to cancel cable and Internet service immediately. Note: You may want to keep your loved one’s cell phone and cell phone account open for several weeks, as this is now a primary source of contact with important people and institutions.
- Notify the credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion – so no one can obtain credit in your loved ones’ name.
- Check any social media channels where your loved one may have had accounts. Those accounts should either be closed or memorialized. The latter strategy may be preferred since social media is a primary way to contact your loved one’s extended family and friends.
3. Steps to Take Within Two Weeks
- Check with an attorney to see if the will may require probate.
- This will also be a good time to set up an estate with an attorney or CPA, especially if the loved one has significant assets. It can take months or even years to settle an estate. The estate will hold the deceased’s assets until distribution and file income tax returns on any income generated by those assets.
- The estate executor will likely need to open a bank account in the estate’s name to handle the movement of money during the estate process.
- If it is known that your loved one had an estate or arranged to have one created upon his or her death, you’ll need to contact the trust attorney selected by your loved one.
- Contact your loved one’s accountant to determine the proper way to handle his or her income tax return. A return will need to be filed for the year of death, and an estate return may need to be filed as well. If your loved one doesn’t have an accountant, you’ll need to hire one.
4. Steps to Take Within the First Month
- If necessary, contact the local police department to alert them that your loved one’s property is vacant and request periodic checks.
- Contact the mortgage holder if your loved one has a loan on the property. You’ll need to make arrangements to continue making mortgage payments through the estate until the home is sold.
- If there is no mortgage on the home, you’ll need to make arrangements to pay the property taxes, homeowner’s insurance, or monthly homeowners association dues.
- Set up a payment system for any ongoing bills. For example, even though your loved one’s house is vacant, you’ll still need to maintain minimum levels of heat and electricity, as well as water and sewer service.
- Cancel your loved one’s driver’s license and alert the Department of Motor Vehicles that he or she has passed. This is important in case any vehicles are stolen. (Note: any auto insurance policies on cars should be maintained until each is sold or transferred to a beneficiary.)
- Either the executor or a trusted designee should be appointed to monitor your loved one’s email account(s). Plan to keep active email accounts open for several months.
Beyond One Month
It’s important to understand that settling your loved one’s estate can take months, or even years, if the will is probated or if there is a large estate.
Estates, in particular, can take several years to settle. They often contain real estate, including the deceased’s home. But if there is business or investment property, it can take even longer. Estates don’t formally dissolve until all assets have been liquidated and distributed. If that includes a business or business property, the dissolution will likely be longer and more complex.
In the meantime, the estate will need to be managed. That includes collecting any income generated by estate assets and paying any bills or other obligations along the way. The estate will also be required to file an income tax return for each year of its existence, to report any income, as well as deductible expenses, and to pay estate taxes on any net income.
Though it may seem somewhat coldhearted to plan for a loved one’s death, it is the smart thing to do. Losing a loved one is one of the most difficult and stressful experiences in life, and much more so if that person is a member of your immediate family. But as is the case with every other challenge we face, a little bit of advanced preparation goes a long way.
Knowing what to do when a loved one dies is also an important part of the grieving process. By participating in the final arrangements for a loved one, you’ll be helping yourself and others come to grips with that person’s loss. In a way, it will help to alleviate those feelings of helplessness when the time comes.