The First Things to Do After the Death of a Loved One - A Detailed Discussion.
When a loved one passes away, it is an understandably traumatic time. It can be even more stressful trying to remember all of the details that must be taken care of. If you are in charge of handling the affairs of the deceased, there are many things to attend to, from providing a proper tribute, to closing bank accounts, to canceling a gym membership, and many of the tasks require attention to detail. Don't try to handle everything yourself, if you don't have to. Delegate to others what you can. The following is a detailed discussion of some of the more important considerations: (Click here for link to "Short Checklist.")
TO DO IMMEDIATELY:
Depending upon the Place of Death... If the individual dies in a hospital or hospice, the medical personnel will take the lead on "next steps" although they will want to know which mortuary or funeral home should be called at the appropriate time. If the individual dies at home, call the paramedics or the police so that the proper "pronouncement of death" can be made.
Get a Legal Pronouncement of Death ("Death Certificate"). A death certificate must be completed and signed by either an attending physician, or the medical examiner/county coroner. If no doctor is present, you’ll need to contact someone to do this:
If the person dies at home under hospice care, call the hospice nurse, who can declare the death and help facilitate the transport of the body of the deceased.
If the person dies at home without hospice care, call 911, and have a "Do Not Resuscitate" document available, if there is one. Without one, paramedics will generally start emergency procedures and, except where permitted to pronounce death, take the person to an emergency room for a doctor to make the declaration.
The death certificate is filed with a local registrar and transmitted to the vital records registration system for recording in the state's official records. Certified copies of the death certificate can be obtained after the death certificate has been filed with the local registrar (See Below). Certified copies will have printed upon them the following language: "This is an exact copy of the death certificate received for filing in County." The certified copy must display an official seal.
Arrange for Organ Donation or Anatomical Gift. It may be the last detail that you want to think about, however arrangements need to be made as soon as possible after death so the organs can be harvested. If you are not certain about the deceased's wishes, there are two sources to check: the driver's license; and/or an advance health care directive, i.e., a living will or health care proxy. If there IS to be an organ donation or anatomical gift, the hospital where the person died will have a coordinator to guide you through the process. If your loved one died outside of a hospital (in hospice, or a nursing home) the paramedics should be called immediately and be sure to let the dispatcher know that the person is a potential organ donor and "time is of the essence!" If consent has been given for the body of the deceased to be an anatomical gift, follow the instructions provided by the institution or organization receiving the gift.
Arrange for Transportation of Deceased. When it is time for the deceased's body to be moved to the mortuary or funeral home, transportation of the deceased's body can be arranged through the chosen funeral home or mortuary (by law, a mortuary must provide price info over the phone).
Contact Immediate Family. As soon as possible and practical, notify immediate family and friends about the death of the loved one. This will assist all involved in making arrangements quickly during this time. If a family member or close friend can be designated to make these contacts, this could serve to alleviate of a great deal of stress on those most affected. In order to assist them, have prepared an accurate listing of the names, addresses and telephone numbers of family members and/or friends to be notified. Contemporary "Social Media" resources such as e-mail, Facebook and Twitter can help in this endeavor.
Notify the Clergy. Contact the deceased's Pastor, Rabbi, Priest or other designated religious leader if there is one in order to facilitate counseling for family members and members of the deceased's congregation, synagogue or parish. They will also be involved in making arrangements for any final religious services and can offer invaluable guidance in many ways.
Consider Funeral Preparations. As mentioned above, If possible, bring together key family members for an early conversation. This is especially helpful if the deceased left no advance instructions or possibly made an unreasonable request. Search the person’s documents to find out whether there was a prepaid burial plan with a funeral home, or prepaid plot with a cemetery. Factors to Consider:
What did the deceased want?
What can you afford?
What will help the family most?
Choose a Funeral Home. The deceased may have identified which funeral home to use - and may have even prepaid for funeral services. If there has been no conversation about arrangements, the choice will be up to the family. In this case, contact the funeral home or mortuary of your choice to carry out the final preparations and/or burial instructions. Obviously, any advance preparation in this area alleviates a lot of stress during an already stressful period. Most funeral homes and/or mortuaries are happy to talk with individuals to provide helpful pre-needs information and arrangements. Someone will have to be authorized to make the decisions concerning the disposition of the remains of the deceased. A final resting place should have already been secured and the proper person will need to be notified of the date of interment as soon as a date is set.
Notify Close Friends and Extended Family. Make a Contact List of as many people as you can. Find contacts through email accounts and personal telephone books. Contact the employer, union, clubs and other organizations the deceased belonged to, if appropriate.
Secure Property and Handle Care of Dependents and Pets. Lock up the deceased's home and vehicle. Is the car parked in a secure and legal area? Will the deceased's home be vacant? If so, you may want to notify the police (dial a non-emergency number), landlord or property manager. Ask a friend or relative to keep an eye on the deceased's home, answer the phone, collect mail, throw food out and water plants, etc.
Notify the Post Office. Use the "Forward Mail" option. This will prevent accumulating mail from attracting attention. It can also inform you about subscriptions, creditors and other accounts that need to be canceled.
TO DO BEFORE THE FUNERAL:
Meet with Funeral Home Director (or other Designated Person) Handling the Funeral or Memorial Arrangements. Use instructions that your loved one might have left and the earlier family discussion to guide the many decisions to be made. For Example:
Will the body be embalmed or cremated?
Will there be a casket, and if so, will it be open or closed?
If body will be cremated, will the ashes be scattered? If the ashes are deposited in an urn, will it be placed in a mausoleum?
Where is the burial site?
Do religious traditions need to be respected?
Will there be contributions to charities in lieu of flowers?
Veteran's Benefits. If the deceased was a Veteran, you may be able to get details about assistance with the funeral, burial plot or other benefits and options at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (1-800- 827-1000) or your local VFW or veteran’s agency (VA), often included in local government listings. You can also inquire about veteran's survivor benefits. Possible veterans benefits may include the following: veterans, service members, and their dependents can be buried in a national cemetery for free; if buried elsewhere, veterans who at the time of death were entitled to receive VA disability payments can receive an allowance toward burial and funeral expenses - this allowance may be greater if the death was related to military service or if it occurred in a VA Hospital; other benefits may include a ceremonial American flag, a headstone, and Presidential memorial certificate.
Financial Assistance or Other Help for the Service. Help might be available from a number of sources, including a church, a union or a fraternal organization that the deceased belonged to. Phone or send an email to the local group.
Enlist Help for the Service. Relatives and friends may be needed to serve as pallbearers, to create or design the service program, cook meals (for a repast/wake gathering, or for the household of the deceased), take care of children or pets, or shop for any items needed for the service or household of the deceased.
Arrange for Headstone. You can typically purchase a headstone through the cemetery or from an outside vendor of your choice. Consult the cemetery about rules, regulations and specifications such as color and size, particularly if you go with an outside vendor.
Organize a Post-Service Gathering. Depending on your tradition, it's called a "repast" or a "wake." It can be held at the church, a banquet hall or someone's house. Enlist the help of friends and relatives to plan.
Inform Family and Friends about the Service. Once a date and time have been set for the service, share the details with those on your contact list (include an address to send cards, flowers or donations).
Make a List of Well-Wishers. Keep track of who sends cards, flowers and donations so that you can acknowledge them later.
Prepare an Obituary. The funeral home will probably offer this service, or you may want to write an obituary yourself. If you want to publish it in a newspaper, check the rates, deadlines and submission guidelines. (Do NOT include such details as exact date of birth that an identity thief could use).
Handle the "Ethical Will," (if there is one). An ethical will isn't a legal document, but rather a letter of sorts written to your family and friends that shares your values, life lessons and hopes for the future. If the deceased left one, arrange to share it, maybe even have it printed.
TO DO AFTER THE FUNERAL:
Collect Required Documents. There are some documents that may be needed, or at least helpful, in settling the estate of the deceased. These documents should be located and kept together in one place until they can be turned over to the person in charge of carrying out this part of the affairs of the deceased. Click here for link to "Documents Checklist."
Get Duplicate Death Certificates. You may need a dozen certified death records to complete upcoming tasks, though some will require less expensive copies. Your funeral director may help you handle this or you can order them from the vital statistics office in the state where the death occurred or from the city hall or other local records office. Each certified record will cost in the neighborhood of $10 or $20.
Send "Thank You" Notes. From the contact list that you acquired earlier, send "thank you" notes and acknowledgements. Consider delegating this task to a family member.
Notify local Social Security Office. Typically the funeral director will notify Social Security of your loved one's death. If the deceased was receiving benefits, these must stop because over-payments will require complicated repayment. Even a payment received for the month of death may need to be returned.
Social Security Benefits. You will need to go to your local Social Security office in person. Bring the decedent’s Social Security number, death certificate (a certified copy), and proof of relationship (such as a marriage license and your spouse’s birth certificate). You should receive your benefits after the 60-day processing period. A spouse or any minor children who were living with the deceased at the time of death may receive a one-time Social Security payment. A widow or widower can also receive monthly benefits at age 65 or at any age if he or she is caring for an eligible minor (under age 16 or disabled). Minor children (under age 18, or 19 if they are still attending school) receive monthly Social Security benefits. If you are divorced from the deceased after a marriage of at least ten years, you may be eligible for Social Security payments. Call the Social Security Administration at 800-772-1213 (Monday - Friday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. - EST) for more information on benefits for which you may be eligible.
Handle Medicare. If your loved one received Medicare, Social Security will inform the program of the death. If the deceased had been enrolled in Medicare Prescription Drug Coverage (Part D), the Medicare Advantage plan or had a Medigap policy, contact these plans at the phone numbers provided on each plan membership card to cancel the insurance.
Employment Benefits. If the deceased was working, contact the employer for information about pension plan, credit unions and union death benefits. You will need a death certificate for each claim.
Stop Health Insurance. Notify the health insurance company or the deceased's employer. End coverage for the deceased, but be sure coverage for any dependents continues, if needed.
Notify Life Insurance Companies. If your loved one had life insurance, appropriate claim forms will need to be filed. You will need to provide the policy numbers and a death certificate. If the deceased was listed as a beneficiary on a policy, arrange to have the name removed.
Terminate other Insurance Policies. Contact the insurance providers which could include homeowner's, automobile and other policies. Claim forms will require a copy of the death certificate.
Meet with a Probate Attorney. The executor should choose the attorney. Getting recommendations from family or friends might be the best approach, but an online search can also be an efficient way to find an attorney. If there is a will, the executor named in it, and the attorney, will have the document admitted into probate court. If there is not a will, the probate court judge will name an administrator in place of an executor. The probate process starts with an inventory of all assets (personal property, bank accounts, house, car, brokerage account, personal property, furniture, jewelry, etc.), which will need to be filed in the probate court. If necessary, the estate’s executor may need to open a bank account for the deceased's estate.
Make a List of Important Bills. Share the list with the executor or estate administrator so that bills can be paid promptly.
Utility Companies. Local utilities (telephone, gas, electricity, cable) should be notified only if someone else wants to be substituted on the accounts. Otherwise wait until you decide whether or not and when the utilities are to be discontinued. In any event, the utility bills must be paid in order to keep the utilities on.
Contact Financial Advisers, Stockbrokers, etc. Determine the beneficiary listed on these accounts. Depending on the type of asset, the beneficiary may get access to the account or benefit by simply filling out appropriate forms and providing a copy of the death certificate. If that's the case, the executor wouldn't need to be involved. If there are complications, the executor could be called upon to help out.
Notify Mortgage Companies and Banks. Take a death certificate to the bank for assistance. Change ownership of joint bank accounts. Did the deceased have a safe deposit box? If a password or key isn't available, the executor would most likely need a court order to open and inventory the safe deposit box. Most probate courts have administrative rules about steps to access the box of any decedent.
Close Credit Accounts. For each account, letters should be sent informing them of the persons death; or, call the customer service phone number on the credit card, monthly statement or issuer's website. Let the agent know that you would like to close the account of a deceased relative. Upon request, submit a copy of the death certificate by fax or email. If that's not possible, send the document by registered mail with return receipt requested. Once the company receives the certificate, it will close the account as of the date of death. If an agent doesn't offer to waive interest or fees after that date, be sure to ask. Keep records of the accounts you close and notify the executor of the estate about outstanding debts. Do not agree to personally be responsible for paying the balances on any outstanding account. The estate is liable, not individual family members unless that family member was a named account holder, regardless of the insistence of the creditors. If nothing remains in the estate to pay off debts, then creditors should be so informed. If any life insurance coverage exists on open accounts to pay off the remaining balances, a copy of the death certificate will be required.
Notify Credit Reporting Agencies. To minimize the chance of identity theft, provide copies of the death certificate to the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) as soon as possible to flag the account. In four to six weeks, check the deceased's credit history to ensure no fraudulent activity.
Disposing of Personal Items and Clothing. Although one of the most heartbreaking tasks when a loved one dies, as soon as emotionally possible, every effort should be made to dispose of those items which will no longer be used by the survivors. The timing of this is handled differently from person to person. If too soon, it may prevent survivors from having adequate time to grieve, while if it takes too long, it may seriously delay the ending of the grieving process, acting as a very painful and constant reminder of the person's death. Only a few items should be retained as mementos. NOTE - No items should be moved, sold, given away or otherwise disposed of if they have been identified in the deceased's will as items to be distributed as a part of the estate. Only the legal beneficiary of those items is entitled to make the decision as to their disposal.
Cancel Driver's License. Clearing the driver's license record will remove the deceased's name from the records of the department of motor vehicles and help prevent identity theft. Contact the state department of motor vehicle for exact instructions. You may have to visit a customer-service center or mail documentation. Either way, you'll need a copy of the death certificate.
Cancel Email and Website Accounts. It's a good idea to close social media and other online accounts to avoid fraud or identity theft. The procedures for each website will vary. For instance, Google Mail (Gmail) will ask you to provide a death certificate, a photocopy of your driver's license and other detailed information.
Cancel Memberships in Organizations. Reach out to sororities, fraternities, professional organizations, and others, that the deceased belonged to and find out how to handle his/her membership status. Greek organizations may want to hold a special ceremony for your loved one.
Contact Accountant or Tax Preparer. An estate-tax return or final income-tax return may need to be filed. Keep monthly bank statements on all individual and joint accounts that show the account balance on the day of death.
Notify Election Board. According to a 2012 Pew Center report, almost 2 million people on voter registration rolls are dead.
(DISCLAIMER: This material is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified attorney, tax advisor, investment professional, or insurance agent. Before making any commitment regarding the issues discussed here, consult with the appropriate professional).
Credits: "AARP – WHAT TO DO WHEN A LOVED ONE DIES - This checklist could help you cope with practical tasks during an emotional time." By Stacy Julien, June 4, 2012. "A CHECKLIST OF WHAT TO DO WHEN A LOVED ONE DIES" - Georgia Department of Human Resources - Division of Aging Services. Natalie Thomas, State Legal Services Developer. "Consumer Reports magazine: October 2012 edition."