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What To Do When Someone Dies: A Step-by-Step Guide

Even when we know it’s coming, the death of a loved one is never easy to deal with. Yet it is especially taxing if you’re the one in charge of handling their affairs, as you have to balance the grieving process with several important personal and legal obligations. It can be difficult to know exactly what you should be doing or even where to start. This guide will offer a step-by-step breakdown of the most important things you need to do when someone dies.

Obtain a Legal Pronouncement of Death

The first and most important thing you need to do when someone dies is to get an official legal pronouncement of death. If your loved one died in a hospital, hospice, or nursing home where a doctor was present, then the staff will handle this. However, if they died at home, especially if it was sudden, then you will need to contact a medical professional to declare them dead. To do this, you can contact your local coroner, who can arrange for the body to be moved and will make the official pronouncement.

A legal pronouncement of death is necessary in order to get a death certificate, which is a critical piece of paperwork. Without it, you won’t be able to access your loved one’s financial accounts, file insurance, or start the probate process. You should ask for several copies of the death certificate, which you can get from the funeral home or a medical examiner. Obtaining the death certificate should happen relatively soon after the passing, usually within a matter of days.

Do Very Little

I know this sounds counter-productive, but it’s important to only focus on the immediate tasks at this time so that you and the rest of the family can celebrate the life of your loved one and take your time through this process. We’ll hit a point where we have to hit deadlines, and we’ll know what they are and when they are. That will be down the road. Yes, there are many steps in the process, but for now, do very little.

Notify Friends, Family, and Other Necessary Parties

The next step is to notify the appropriate people of your loved one’s passing. For close relations, send out individual phone calls to let them know about the passing, followed by a mass email or group text message on social media. You might also put a post about the death on social media. Prioritize contacting those who were closest to your loved one, starting with family members and friends. From there, inform their employer, coworkers, frequent acquaintances, and professional relationships. It might be a good idea to reach out to any of their old friends that they hadn’t communicated with recently.

After you’ve contacted immediate family, friends, and acquaintances, you will need to make some more formal calls, including anyone who would need to know about the death for either financial or business purposes. Contacting businesses and government agencies could be the job of the executor of the estate (if one was named), but regardless of who does it, make sure that the following organizations are contacted:

  • Social Security Office (dial 1-800-772-1213 to speak with a representative)
  • Banks & Mortgage Companies
  • Financial Advisors & Brokers
  • Insurance Companies

Make Arrangements for the Body

Within a few days of the death, you should have worked out the final arrangements for your loved one’s body. If they had an estate plan, then they hopefully already covered their last wishes, including if they wanted to donate their body to science or transplant. If the death was sudden and there was no plan, you will need to consider your options for services, funerals, wakes, and burials.

Provide Care For Children and Pets

If your loved one had any dependents (minor children or adults who cannot take care of themselves) or pets, you will need to find their estate plans to determine if any provisions were set up for guardianship. At the very least there should caretakers in place to watch them until permanent plans are established. If the deceased didn’t leave behind a will or trust, the courts might need to get involved to make a final decision on guardianship.

Make Funeral Plans

By now you should have located your loved one’s will or any other estate documents that they left behind, as they will help you with the funeral planning stage. Funerals and other such events are complicated, so it is wise to get help from family and friends, especially as they will likely have roles to fill at the service.

Some of the tasks you will need to plan and arrange to do include:

  • Transportation for the body
  • Ordering a casket (or cremation services)
  • Determine memorial type
  • Finding a funeral director
  • Writing an obituary or death announcement
  • Sending invites
  • Ordering flowers
  • Planning food and refreshments

Remember, there is no shame in asking for help. There is a lot that needs to be done.

Settle the Estate

The estate settlement process is often long and involved, though a lot of this will depend on how thoroughly the estate plan was thought out and what documents were created. For instance, if there is no estate plan at all or if there is just a will (but no trust), the estate will go through probate. Probate is the process in which the court validates a will and then distributes assets. If there is both a will and a trust, probate can be skipped entirely.

Before distributing any asset, you will need to pay off any bills that were left behind. You will likely need to set up a bank account in the estate’s name to handle any financial dealings throughout these final stages, ensuring that you have an accurate inventory of all assets, accounts, and debts. Once any bills or debts are paid off, the assets can be distributed based on the specifics of the will. However, if someone dies without a will, state laws and the court will determine how all of the assets will be distributed.

Closing the Book

With all of the tasks of major importance completed, all that’s left is to carry out any final odds and ends. You should call to cancel your loved one’s driver’s license, bank accounts, and credit cards closed if you haven’t already. Additionally, you should close their email accounts, as this will prevent the possibility of identity theft. Some might also want to close down their social media accounts, but you can also choose to leave it up and have it “memorialized,” where it can serve as a way for friends and family to remember them. Whether you choose to delete or memorialize, you’ll need to contact the company with copies of your ID as well as the death certificate.

It’s always tough to lose someone you love, but hopefully, this step-by-step guide will at least make the process of tending to their final needs a little easier.

About the author

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Founder/Attorney, CCSK Law
I create customized solutions for families to address their planning needs.
I provide plans clients understand. Also, they make sure they know when to use them, and do so affordably. I love the opportunity to break through the legal jargon to clarify issues. We find success when we work through a person’s situation and put the law to work for them.

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