What To Do When A Loved One Dies

The death of a family member or close friend is bound to be a shock. Unfortunately, the very people reeling from that shock are usually the same people that have to deal with all of the other tasks that come when a loved one dies. The good news is that not everything has to be done right away, and you probably don’t need to do it all. Here’s what to do:

What to do right away:

  • Contact the authorities. If the person didn’t die at the hospital or in hospice, call 9-1-1. Medical personnel and police may respond, depending on the circumstances.
  • Find (or make) funeral arrangements. If the person made funeral arrangements in advance, you’ll want to contact the funeral home to begin preparing the funeral.
  • Determine if the person was an organ donor. In Missouri, there is an organ donor registry, but not every person who makes plans to donate organs gets on the registry. You should check the person’s drivers license and their estate planning documents to see if they planned to donate organs. If you’re looking in the estate planning documents, look for an advance health care directive or a health care power of attorney–that’s often where the organ donation information will be.
  • Contact family and friends. This is an easy task to delegate. Contact a few people closest to the deceased, and ask them to pass the message throughout the family.
  • Arrange for the care of children and pets. Obviously, leaving children or pets to fend for themselves isn’t feasible, so someone will have to take care of them in the interim.
  • Secure the house. Burglars sometimes like to strike houses of recently deceased people, so it’s a good idea to secure the house (and other property) quickly. You may want to consider planning for lights to be on timers to give the appearance that the house is in use, arranging for lawn care, that sort of thing. This is also why it’s often a good idea to have someone watching the house while the funeral is going on; burglars sometimes strike during the funeral, if it’s announced in the obituary.

What still needs to be done:

  • Clean the house. Garbage and perishable items in the home are going to go bad, so those should be thrown away before they become a big mess.
  • Notify the deceased’s employer. Obviously, if the deceased starts missing work, their employer is going to wonder what happened. If the deceased had friends at the workplace, they might want to know when the funeral service is scheduled. The employer may have information about employer-sponsored retirement plans and life insurance for the deceased, and may need to pay remaining earned wages and paid time off.
  • Prepare the obituary. Some funeral homes may help you with this, but I thought this guide was helpful should you need to do it on your own.
  • Get certified copies of the death certificate. You’re going to need quite a few of these. Most financial institutions, insurance companies, and other companies the deceased worked with will need them. Generally, you’ll want “certified” copies, which have a raised seal on them.
  • Notify Social Security, if necessary. For the most part, funeral homes will handle the death reporting to the SSA. However, the SSA maintains information for survivors and benefits, which you can see here.
  • Start cancelling services. Obviously, you’ll probably need to maintain utilities to the residence for a time, but newspaper and magazine subscriptions, gym memberships, credit cards, cable/satellite/streaming services, and the like can be cancelled.
  • Notify the post office. Much like newspapers and magazines, piled-up mail is an indicator that a house is unoccupied, tempting thieves. The mail can be forwarded to the personal representative.
  • Gather key documents. This may be one of the more arduous tasks in the process–in some cases, the deceased may not have told you about all of the things he or she had, which makes it hard to find everything. What should you be looking for?
    • Estate planning documents (wills, trusts, powers of attorney–generally they ought to be together)
    • Deeds and mortgages on real estate
    • Evidence of debt–promissory notes, credit card statements (and promissory notes for anyone who might owe money to the deceased)
    • Vehicle/trailer/boat/RV registrations and titles
    • Insurance policies–life, health, auto, and so on
    • Bank statements
    • Pension records
    • IRA/401(k)/403(b) records
    • Federal and state income tax returns
    • Property tax assessments
    • Business records, corporate by-laws, LLC or partnership agreements
    • Keys–to the house, car, safety deposit box, anything locked
    • Passwords for anything that has online access
  • Engage an accountant/tax preparer and an attorney. I know that, as an attorney, I’m somewhat biased in suggesting that you should use an attorney, but I do think there’s benefit to having a professional manage the process. As to whom you select, that’s up to you.
  • Prepare to settle the estate. In Missouri, you have up to one year after the person died to present the will. Realistically, you’ll probably want to start a little earlier than that in order to get “letters testamentary” if you’re the personal representative of the deceased. Letters testamentary are papers from the court that name you as personal representative and allow you to act for the estate.
  • Inventory the estate. Once the estate is filed with the court, the court will require an inventory of the estate. You’ll need a list of the items in the estate and their values. In some cases, you may need appraisals for some items, like real estate or collectibles.
  • Notify the credit agencies. To reduce the chance of identity theft, you should notify the three major credit reporting bureaus, Experian, Equifax, and Transunion, of the death.
  • Notify the election board. You’ve heard reports where dead people have voted? It can happen, so let the election board know so the deceased can be removed from the rolls.

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