What do I need to do when my loved one dies?
By Amy Goyer
When loved ones die it can be a shock, no matter how ill they may have been. Grief is a unique experience for every individual and for every loss. Grieving can be even more complicated if you’ve been a long-time caregiver. You may feel numb, sad, angry, relieved, stunned, or lost. It can be a difficult time to process myriad emotions while at the same time taking care of the many practical matters that are required after a death. The following list of things to do when someone dies is provided to help guide you at a time when you may feel overwhelmed.
Pronouncement of death
If your loved ones die at home, you can call the emergency squad to pronounce death, or if they have been under the care of a home hospice program, the hospice nurse or doctor will come to the home and do the legal pronouncement of death. If they die in an assisted living, nursing home, or hospice facility, the staff there will carry out their protocol for pronouncing death.
Funeral home or body donation
If loved ones have a pre-paid funeral/burial/cremation plan, simply call the funeral home. Otherwise, you’ll need to decide on a funeral home and arrange for them to come for your loved ones’ remains. If a body donation has been chosen, the body donation program will make arrangements with a funeral home (if you call a funeral home first be sure to mention the desire for body donation if it hasn’t already been arranged). A social worker with a hospice program, hospital, nursing home, or another facility can be very helpful in handling these arrangements. If remains are to be transported out of state, be sure to ask about the legal requirements to do that. Request multiple copies of a death certificate which you may need as you deal with the notifications and legal matters (usually the funeral home will provide these, but if not, you can contact the state agency that processes them to find out how to obtain them). The funeral director can also help you plan a funeral or memorial service, write and post an obituary, choose a burial place, and make other plans.
If your loved ones have been beneficiaries of any of your insurance policies or other accounts, you’ll need to notify those companies and change your beneficiary. It’s also important to notify others when someone dies, including:
- Family, friends, and neighbors
- Paid caregivers, home health agencies
- Healthcare professionals (cancel any upcoming appointments)
- Faith group leaders
- Insurance companies (life, long-term care, health, auto, home, etc.)
- Social Security
- Medicare (usually Social Security will notify Medicare, but it’s a good idea to check)
- Veterans Affairs (if they have been receiving benefits and to ask if they qualify for assistance with the funeral and burial plot, headstone, or other benefits)
- Pension program or employer
- Investment companies
- Credit card companies
- Mortgage companies
- Utilities and services (cable, internet, gas, electric, water, sewage, online social media accounts, etc.)
- Attorneys (ask about how to deal with paying bills, taxes, etc.)
- Accountants, stock brokers, financial advisors/planners
- Credit agencies (to prevent identity theft, send death certificates)
- Alumni organizations, veterans groups, professional groups, frequent flier clubs (you may be able to transfer miles), fitness clubs, and other membership organizations
Even if you’ve held the power of attorney for your loved ones while they were living, a POA is no longer valid after death. Instead, in a will or trust, a person is designated to have the ability to settle the estate and deal with legal affairs. This person may be called “personal agent”, “estate manager”, “executor of the estate”, or “Trustee” (of a trust). Contact their attorney if you don’t already have a valid copy of your loved ones’ will or trust. If your loved ones did not have a will or trust, then their estate generally goes to probate court. An estate attorney can help you deal with these matters. Be sure to discuss how to pay bills (utilities, mortgage, etc.) while the estate is being processed.
Home and pets
If no one else is living in the home of the deceased, you’ll need to ensure that pets are cared for, the refrigerator and trash are emptied, newspapers are discontinued, the mail is forwarded to the executor of the estate, the yard is cared for, and utilities are turned off (or kept on until the home is emptied and sold).
One of the most difficult things is re-distributing loved ones’ belongings after they pass on. It helps if they have left directions about whom they would like to have their things. But if not, you can take care of this task yourself, or get help from an estate sale company, a de-cluttering or organization professional, or others who specialize in downsizing, moving, and packing.
As you deal with life after the loss of loved ones, remember that obtaining grief support is vitally important for your own well-being and to help you manage this difficult time. Join a virtual or in-person grief support group (hospice organizations and funeral homes can help you find them), join a social media grief group, get one-to-one mental health counseling, and talk with family and friends. Talk with your doctor if you are feeling grief’s physical effects, including difficulty sleeping. Be gentle with yourself; grief is not a straight line, so you may feel better at times, then worse again. That’s ok. Allow yourself the grace to go through it in any way that works for you.
- American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys (AAEPA)
- Dealing with Grief, Loss, and End of Life Planning (AARP)
- Financial Moves You Must Make When a Spouse Dies (AARP)
- Find a GriefShare Group (Griefshare.org)
- Guidelines for Individual Executors and Trustees (American Bar Association)
- How to Apply for a Veterans Burial Allowance (VA)
- Immediate Steps to Take When a Loved One Dies (United Way Worldwide)
- Report a Death to Social Security 1-800-772-1213 (Social Security Administration)
- Report a Death to Medicare 1-800-772-1213 (Medicare.gov)
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs 1-800-827-1000
- Veterans Death Benefits (VA)
- Veterans Affairs Survivors Benefits (VA)
- When a Family Member Dies (Social Security)
- What to Do After Someone Dies ( National Institute on Aging)
- What to Do When Someone Dies (AARP)
Amy Goyer is a nationally known caregiving expert and author of Juggling Life, Work, and Caregiving. A passionate champion for caregivers, she has also been one her entire adult life, caring for her grandparents, parents, sister, and others. Connect with Amy on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.