What to Do When Someone Dies

5 mins
Jon Green
March 11, 2022

When a loved one passes away, what can you do?

Knowing what to do when someone dies is rarely, if ever, straightforward. Over the years, I have worked with a number of grieving families to cope with an unexpected death and navigate the complex, often exhaustive procedures related to inheritance and financial assets. In the face of grief, many of these mundane procedures are a distraction, if everything is in order.

The problem is that while most Americans consider estate planning important, few actually have taken the steps to make the transition as simple as possible for their loved ones. In fact, a third of Americans have experienced family conflict due to the lack of an estate plan.

To avoid unnecessary pain and to allow your family and friends time to grieve, it's critical to understand what happens once someone passes away. That's why I'm going to cover both what you should do when someone dies - and what you need to plan your estate.

But first, let's get an overview of the first few days after a death.

What to do when someone dies

There is more administrative work when a loved one dies than you would think. In fact, many children or spouses are often so distracted by the legal process of death that the whole ordeal distracts from their grieving. This is especially true if nothing is arranged beforehand.

For example, the first thing a hospital wants to know is where they should release the body. Since the body will begin to decompose, it needs to be transferred immediately. If you are lucky, your loved one picked a funeral parlor ahead of time. If not, you may be Googling all the local funeral parlors - even if it's in the middle of the night or if you're in another state.

The funeral parlor is particularly important. Outside of the funeral arrangement, the parlor is also responsible for the death certificate. You will need this death certificate for various reasons - to close banking accounts, to submit to the social security administration, and so on. You will also need to tell the funeral parlor how many death certificates you will need. Generally, you should get 5-10 certified copies, just to be safe.

But what about the funeral?

There is a common misconception that you should put your funeral arrangements in the will.

I once knew a man who passed away, and two weeks after the funeral, his family read the will. He wanted to be buried in a specific cemetery. The problem was, his family had already cremated him.

The fact is, most people don't pull out the will until two weeks after the deceased person is buried.

Outside of these main tasks, there are a dozen other things to do, such as planning the funeral, cleaning the deceased person's things, and contacting their financial advisors.

From a financial perspective, it's critical to take out any money you need from the deceased person's account before it's on hold. This is because once the account is frozen, it's impossible to move funds around, even if you are the designated beneficiary. How long a specific transfer takes is entirely on the bank or brokerage's time. So if your loved one had set aside funds for their funeral expenses, or you need help with the funeral costs, it's best to access the money before submitting the death certificate.

There is a common misconception that you should put your funeral arrangements in the will.

Dealing with death: A bereavement checklist

As I've discussed, when a loved one passes on, there are a lot of things to consider beyond funeral costs. Here is a generally linear checklist to help you through the paperwork process, step-by-step:

  1. Get a legal pronouncement of death from the hospital or your hospice care nurse.
  2. Find out about the funeral arrangement.
  3. Contact the funeral parlor and request the death certificate. Order 10 copies.
  4. Confirm or make the funeral arrangements.
  5. Lock the deceased's home and vehicle.
  6. If your loved one had a pet, ask a friend, family member, or neighbor to take care of them until everything is sorted.
  7. Forward the deceased person's mail to your address or to another relative.
  8. If your family member was still employed, tell their company.
  9. Locate the executor of the will and potentially an estate lawyer.
  10. Get the family CPA to help with potential taxes.
  11. Meet with your loved one's financial advisor to help inventory assets.
  12. Take the will to probate.
  13. List current bills that need to be canceled.
  14. Submit a death certificate to the Social Security Administration, life insurance companies, banks, brokerages, credit agencies.
  15. Cancel your loved one's driver's license, cancel bills, and close all related accounts.

It may seem unnecessary, but closing email accounts, social media profiles, and other online accounts can help prevent identity theft. Ideally, the deceased will have left all of their estate planning documents in order, so you don't have to dig through dozens of files.

Legacy Planning Checklist

But there are also other matters to consider besides your final wishes. This includes having a will. In many states, failure to provide a beneficiary designation means that the probate court will decide what happens to your assets. This process can eat up to 10% of your estate, which means you are leaving less behind.

Gift your loved ones time to grieve

Ultimately, keeping your estate planning documents updated and letting your family know about your plans are two crucial steps to supporting your loved ones in this time. From funeral wishes to inheritance and pet trusts, there are several difficult documents that must be discussed beforehand.

And while these topics are often uncomfortable, planning ahead of time can prevent costly probate hearings, family conflict, and, more importantly, it will give your loved ones more time to grieve properly.

If you've found this post useful, download our free, printable checklist for both bereavement and legacy planning. No email required.

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