The healing process takes time when you lose someone that you love — time to grieve and time to honor a life well-lived — but when you’re in charge of the decedent’s final affairs, there is also much that must be done to protect their estate and ensure that their final wishes are carried out.
That can be difficult at an emotional time.
As you tend to the tasks required, from planning the funeral to closing their accounts, it helps to stay organized, delegate where possible, and create a schedule for what needs to be done when.
“Sometimes, when a death occurs suddenly, the family members left behind forget important details,” said Bob Arrington, past president of the National Funeral Directors Association. “They wish they would have put his favorite fishing cap on him because that’s what he always wore, or brought her prized trophy to the service. They don’t have time to think through how they really want to memorialize that person’s life.”
It’s harder still if the decedent died suddenly and did not preplan, he said.
“You go from coping with the death to planning their funeral in less than 12 hours,” said Arrington. “In some ways, it’s similar to waking up one day and being told that you have to plan an entire wedding in two days.”
The following guidance from industry professionals offers a timeline of steps you must take to provide for your loved one’s interests after they are gone.
Immediately after a loved one passes, you will need to obtain a legal pronouncement of death from the hospital or nursing facility where he or she died. If the decedent died at home under hospice care, in most states the hospice nurse can declare the death (or contact the doctor that needs to make the declaration) and arrange for transportation of the body. If he or she died at home without hospice care, experts advise calling 911. (Note: If a do-not-resuscitate document exists, be sure to provide it to the paramedics, who will otherwise generally deploy emergency procedures until they reach a hospital where a doctor can declare the death.)
If the decedent is eligible for organ or tissue donation, the next-of-kin will be contacted directly by the local donation agency. If the deceased is a registered donor and is eligible for donation, then their decision will be honored. If the deceased is not registered and is suitable for donation, the next-of-kin will be asked to make the decision.
Unsure of their intentions? The AARP suggests family members check their loved one’s driver’s license or advanced health care directive (such as a living will or health care proxy) for instructions. Hospitals are required to report all deaths to their local donation agency. If he or she died in the hospital, the staff will help you coordinate. If the deceased dies outside of a hospital, donation opportunities are likely to be limited, but family may wish to ask nursing home or hospice administration if the death can be referred. A best practice is to share with your loved ones your wishes related to organ donation prior to such an event.
Other things that must be dealt with immediately, according to the AARP, include:
- Notifying the decedent’s primary care doctor or county coroner.
- Choosing a funeral home. (Learn more: Funeral costs and considerations)
- Contacting close family and friends.
- Arranging for the care of any dependents or pets the deceased left behind.
- Securing his or her residence.
- Reaching out to the deceased’s employer, if he or she was still working.
On the last item, don’t forget to request information about any benefits or pay that the decedent may be due. You’ll want to inquire, as well, about any life insurance that the company may have provided.
Another suggestion, from Dennett, Craig & Pate Funeral Home, in Saco, Maine, is arranging for the disposal of any perishables left in the deceased’s home, such as food, refrigerated items, and trash.1 And it suggests instructing the post office to forward the deceased’s mail to you, which serves two purposes: preventing mail from accumulating at the house, which makes it an easy target, and providing a valuable paper trail in the weeks ahead on creditors, memberships or subscriptions that need to be cancelled, monthly bills that must be paid, and insurance policies they may have owned.
Before the funeral
As you begin to plan the funeral service, you will need to arrange for the headstone, prepare an obituary, recruit friends and family to serve as pallbearers, and plan a wake for after the service – all of which friends and family members can help with.
You also should notify any religious, fraternal, military, or civic organizations to which your loved one belonged. Some may offer burial benefits or offer assistance with funeral services.
Now is also the time to gather important documents, including their will, birth certificate, Social Security card, marriage license, military discharge papers, deed to burial property, copy of funeral prearrangements if any exist, and life insurance policies.
“It’s the marshalling of assets so you can put all of their financial affairs in order,” said William Kirchick, an estate planner and partner with Nutter McClennen & Fish law firm in Boston, Massachusetts.
Organization is key.
“Keep track of every expense and keep every receipt from the funeral director, including the catering costs if you host a reception,” said Kirchick. “These are costs of the decedent’s funeral expenses that are deductible on their estate tax return if one must be filed.”
After the funeral
After your loved one is laid to rest, you will need to meet with a probate attorney, who will begin the legal process of settling your loved one’s estate.
Assuming you are the named executor, you will need multiple copies of the death certificate so you can close the decedent’s financial accounts, file any life insurance claims, and register his or her death with the relevant government agencies, said Kirchick, noting the funeral home generally orders the death certificates for you.
“How many death certificates you need depends on the number of assets in the decedent’s name,” he said. ”You will need an original death certificate for each insurance policy, bank account, and retirement account they owned so the executor of their estate can close them out.”
The AARP suggests making a list of the decedent’s important bills (including their mortgage payment) and sharing it with the executor or estate administrator so they can be paid promptly. You will want to notify the mortgage company, too.
Next steps include taking the decedent’s will to the county or city office so it can be accepted for probate, notifying your loved one’s health insurance company to stop coverage (making sure that coverage for any dependents remains in place), contacting the bank to find accounts and safe deposit boxes, and contacting their life insurance companies to file the appropriate claim forms. (You can find MassMutual’s claims form here)
AARP notes you must also notify the Social Security office, which may be handled by the funeral director, so benefits will be stopped, as well as contacting Medicare to inform the program of his or her death. At the same time, you will need to cancel the decedent’s driver’s license, their email and website accounts, and memberships to organizations that they belonged to.
Dennett, Craig & Pate Funeral Home said you should ask the government agencies about their eligibility for benefits, notify the registrar of voters, cancel unnecessary home services, such as newspaper deliveries and cable service.
Last but not least, Kirchick said you will need to connect with the decedent’s financial team, including his or her financial advisor, tax accountant, estate planning professional, and investment broker.
“Do they have an attorney who prepared their wills or trusts, handled their investments?” he asks. “Their tax preparer will need to file a final tax return.”
Despite the grieving process, there are dozens of tasks that must be handled after a loved one passes away. By staying organized and enlisting the aid of friends and family, however, you can help to ensure that their estate and their interests are in good hands.
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1 Dennett, Craig & Pate, “What to do when a loved one dies: A survivor’s checklist.”