After death checklist for survivors: what to do when someone dies
When someone you love dies, you may just want to curl up in a ball and shut out the world. It can be hard to focus on everything that needs to happen. And unfortunately, there are a lot of things that need to happen, both immediately after a death and in the weeks and months that follow.
This checklist will help you keep it all straight, and you can share it with friends and family to divide tasks. Don’t try to do it all by yourself. Now is the time to ask for help.
Immediately after death
- Get a legal pronouncement of death
As painful and surreal as everything might feel right now, to move forward with other steps you need a legal pronouncement of death from a medical professional. If your loved one died in a hospital, the team there will provide the legal pronouncement. If they died in hospice care at home, the hospice nurse will handle it. But if they weren’t attended by a medical professional, you’ll need to call 911 so that a medical team can come and provide a legal pronouncement of death.
- Notify close friends and family
You may know exactly who to notify and can start making contact. In some families, that might mean you’ll need to make a lot of phone calls. Ask someone to help you if possible. In other families, texting or emailing might be appropriate.
You may also not know exactly who to get in touch with if your loved one had a community of friends or family you didn’t know. Look in their contacts list on their phone and their email account to find out who to contact.
- Notify a hospital for organ donation, if applicable
If your loved one planned to donate their organs, that information needs to be provided to a medical professional quickly. If you’re not sure, you can check their driver’s license. Some people also put that information in an advanced directive.
- Look for existing funeral, burial, or cremation plans
If you don’t know what your loved one’s funeral, burial, or cremation plans were, check with other family members and in any important document files. Some people’s plans are included with their medical paperwork like advanced directives.
If you can’t find any plans, you’ll probably want to contact other family members to decide how to proceed with any funeral arrangements.
- Arrange for transportation of your loved one’s body
Based on what you found or planned for a funeral and burial or cremation, arrange for transport of your loved one’s body. A funeral home can help you arrange for transportation for either burial or cremation. You can also contact a direct cremation company.
- Arrange for care of pets or dependents
If your loved one has a pet or someone that depends on them at home, you’ll need to quickly arrange for their care. A temporary solution is fine until you can figure out something more long-term.
- Secure your loved one’s home
Abandoned homes are a target for vandalism and theft. If your loved one’s home is unlocked and/or noticeably empty, it could be at risk. If there are valuables in the home that could be locked up (for instance, jewelry), put it in a safe.
- Notify your loved one’s employer
If your loved one was employed, let their employer know that they’ve passed away. If you’re in the mental frame of mind to ask about death benefits or life insurance, you can do that. But you can also wait to do that a few days down the road.
Within several days of death
- Make funeral and burial or cremation arrangements
Organizing a funeral service can be a lot of work, so ask for help if you can. You’ll need to purchase a casket or urn and work with the funeral home to set a date and schedule for the service. If you want to have a printed order of service, order it now. Ask someone to write an obituary for your loved one. And you’ll need to notify people of the service. Many websites host that information. You can also use social media or put a notice in the local newspaper.
- Look for financial assistance with the funeral service, if needed
If the cost of a funeral is prohibitive, look into financial assistance. Some organizations, like the Veterans Administration or certain religious communities, offer help for members. Some families also set up crowdsourcing pages to help with funding. Money you pay for the funeral service, burial, or cremation can be reimbursed by the estate.
- Get your loved one’s mail forwarded
Contact the post office to have their mail forwarded to you or another person that can help manage it. Like an empty house, piled up mail signals that no one is home and can make a house a target for burglary or vandalism.
- Clear out potential issues in your loved one’s home
It’s a good idea to go back into your loved one’s home and clear out anything that could cause problems. Clean out the refrigerator, rehome houseplants. Clean out any trash bins.
Two weeks after death
- Order a headstone
Headstones often take awhile to arrive, so don’t worry about adding that to your early list. It’s something you’ll probably put up after the funeral and burial service.
- Order copies of the death certificate
You (or the executor/administrator) will need 5-10 certified copies of the death certificate. You’ll need these to do things like file an insurance claim or close your loved one’s bank account. The funeral home can help you secure the death certificate copies, or you can contact the vital statistics office in the state where your loved one died.
- Find the will and identify the executor
Hopefully your loved one made a will, and they told you where they kept it before they died. If not, you should do some investigating to see if a will exists. If they have a family attorney, contact that person to see if they are aware of a will. You can also look around their home in places where they kept important documents as well as in a safety deposit box. If you find a will, it should name an executor. That person will have primary authority for doing everything else on this list. If it’s not you, offer to help. Being an executor is a big job.
If there is no will, don’t worry. You can file a petition with the probate court and request to be made administrator of the estate. Or if there’s someone better suited, you can help them with that process.
- Decide whether you want assistance with the probate process
The probate process can be long and tedious, sometimes complex. The cost of a traditional probate attorney is also prohibitive for many families. Look into your options for probate support. EZ-Probate has three affordable plans that offer varying levels of support for families going through probate.
- Start the probate process
File the will (if there is one) and a petition for probate with the probate court in the county where your loved one lived. Starting the probate process as soon as you can ensures that you can carry out all the needed steps to protect your loved one’s assets.
- Notify the Social Security Administration
Contact the SSA to let them know of your loved one’s death. If they were receiving benefits, those checks will stop. You may be able to apply for survivor benefits. Sometimes funeral directors contact the SSA on your behalf, so check with them to see if they’ve already done that.
- Notify the life insurance company, if there was a policy
You’ll need a copy of the death certificate to make a claim on the life insurance policy. This is also a good time to check your own beneficiary designations and remind others to do so. If anyone had the deceased as their beneficiary, they should change that.
- Notify credit agencies
Identity theft can be a problem after people die. Send copies of the death certificate to the three major credit agencies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
- Notify any banks or financial institutions
You’ll need to close or change ownership of any accounts. If your loved one left a list of online usernames and passwords, the task may be relatively straightforward. If not, you’ll need to take a copy of the death certificate to each institution to close or change ownership of the accounts. Some may require a court order.
If you’re not sure what accounts your loved one had, looking through their mail and email accounts can be helpful.
- Notify investment account brokers
If your loved one had investment accounts, notify the brokers of those accounts. That includes 401ks or other retirement accounts. Each account should have a listed beneficiary. You’ll probably need to provide a death certificate to get the funds transferred to the beneficiaries.
- Contact or hire an accountant
You (or the executor) will need to file the deceased’s final tax return and may have to file an estate tax return as well. Having an accountant ensures that you perform this task correctly and don’t get into trouble with the IRS.
- Identify employment benefits
Some types of employment include death benefits from unions or pension plans. Contact your loved one’s employer to find out whether these are applicable.
- Make an inventory of all assets
As part of the probate process, an executor must create an inventory of all assets and present it to the court. That includes personal property in the home as well as bank and investment accounts.
- Pay existing bills
The executor is responsible for paying existing bills, especially ones that are related to the upkeep of assets — for instance, mortgage payments, utility bills, etc.
- Cancel any services that are no longer needed
Your loved one’s mail, email accounts, bank and credit card statements can be helpful in finding monthly service payments. Cancel things like their cell phone, Netflix, internet, Amazon Prime, Apple music, etc. Don’t forget about insurance policies that are no longer needed — like car insurance and health insurance. Don’t cancel homeowners’ insurance, though. Talk to the homeowners’ insurance company about changing the policy holder.
- Cancel driver’s license
Another important step toward preventing identity theft is canceling your loved one’s driver’s license. Their local DMV will have specific instructions about how to do this. You’ll need a copy of the death certificate.
- Close all credit cards
You’ll need to contact each credit card company individually and send a copy of the death certificate. Note any outstanding balances, and if you’re not the executor, provide that information to them. They’ll be responsible for paying those debts out of the estate funds.
- Close or memorialize social media accounts
Some social media sites allow you to keep a deceased person’s account open but with memorial status. The word “Remembering” is placed in front of their name. People can post on the timeline, but no one can log in. You can also choose just to delete the accounts. Either way, you’ll need to provide the social media company with a death certificate.
- Close your loved one’s email account
Once you’ve gotten all the information you need from your loved one’s email account, you should permanently close it to decrease the risk of identity theft. If they left usernames and passwords, you can do this yourself. If not, you’ll have to contact the company and provide a copy of the death certificate.
The days, weeks, and months after the death of someone you love are unlike any other time. Many people describe it as living in a fog. When you’re also serving as an executor or just helping with after death tasks, organizing your actions can feel like an insurmountable task.
We’ve been there, and we get it. If you need more than this checklist provides (and lots of people do), contact us for a free confidential consultation with a probate expert. We’re here to help.