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

Sadly, because of the COVID-19 global pandemic and its mounting toll, many more people than usual are likely to experience the death of a loved one in the coming months. Sometimes when these deaths occur, no prior preparations have been made. This is more likely when those who die are on the younger side, as they are less likely to have wills or advance directives in place. If someone close to you dies, you may need to take care of some important tasks even though you are grieving.

The following information will help you understand the various legal considerations you may need to address in the event of a loved one’s death, from first steps and funeral arrangements to dependent care and financial matters.


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What is the first thing that needs to be done after a loved one dies?

The first legal documentation that will be required is a pronouncement of death. If the individual died in a hospital or in hospice care, the medical doctor or hospice nurse may fill out the paperwork necessary to certify the place, time, and cause of death. If the person died in your home or some other location, call 911 for assistance. The police will notify the coroner. It is best not to move your loved one until someone in authority has confirmed the death.

How should I notify friends and family?

It’s good to take everyone’s preferences into consideration before notifying friends and family. For instance, would it be better to share the news over the phone or in person? Can some friends and family help you notify others? You will probably want to tell immediate family members first, then other family and friends. After that, you can notify additional relevant contacts, such as your loved one’s employer or clergy.

The American Red Cross may be able to assist with notifications regarding the deaths of current and former members of the military. 

What are the options for final arrangements?

Look for any instructions your loved one may have left regarding final arrangements. These might be located wherever files are kept in the home or in a safe deposit box. If there are written instructions regarding a funeral, a prepaid burial plan or cemetery plot, or membership in a memorial society, you may find them in the individual’s Last Will and Testament or in a separate document, such as a Memorial Plans document. If you cannot find any instructions, it will most likely be up to the family to decide what to do.

Depending on your loved one’s instructions or the family’s decision, the next step will be to contact one of the following: 

  • Funeral home
  • Cremation-specific company
  • Full body donation organization, such as a medical school

The organization you contact should be able to help you with the details of whatever arrangements you have chosen. Funeral homes can often handle cremations as well as burials and memorial services. Nonprofit organizations and medical schools are the most common recipients of full body donations. Cremation or donation may provide some flexibility to postpone a memorial until a later date that is more convenient for people who may not be able to travel right now due to COVID restrictions or other concerns. 

Aside from funeral arrangements, what other issues may need to be addressed right away?

Additional needs that you may need to address promptly include:

  • Dependent care: Check to see if your loved one has created a valid Child Care Authorization.
  • Pet care: If no one is able to take in your loved one’s pets, contact a local animal shelter.
  • Securing your loved one’s home and vehicles: If necessary, you can arrange for the local police or sheriff to drive by periodically.
  • Mail or newspaper collection: Until you can arrange to cancel any newspapers and forward the mail, make sure someone is collecting them, so they don’t pile up at the home.
  • Notifying any relevant parties mentioned in the will or other directives: These might include an attorney, trustee, executor, or conservator. One of these parties may be able to distribute funds to cover the funeral and other expenses.

What kinds of documents should I look for?

The documents you will want to keep an eye out for, either in a safe deposit box or within the person’s home, include:

  • Information regarding a safe deposit box, including keys.
  • Bank records or information regarding stocks, bonds, certificates of deposit, and other financial instruments and accounts.
  • A will, trust, or other testamentary documents.
  • Documents relating to marriage, such as a marriage certificate or divorce papers.
  • Life insurance and other insurance policies.
  • Retirement benefit, pension, or IRA statements.
  • Income tax returns or other tax documents.
  • Birth or death certificates.
  • Military records. 
  • Computer records, including password logs.
  • Title documents for any vehicles or properties the person owned, as well as deeds and mortgage documents.
  • Business-related information, such as employment or partnership agreements.

If your loved one had a safe deposit box, only those who are also named on the account are usually granted access. However, most banks will open the box for heirs seeking access to a will or other related documents. Aside from these documents, the bank will generally keep possession of the box and its contents until it receives a court order. 

If you find a will, it will most likely name an executor. This is the person who is responsible for administering the estate, which includes taking care of most of the items discussed in the rest of this article. If you are named as the executor, you will find it helpful to work with an estate attorney to get all of this done.

If you cannot find a will or any other testamentary documents, then you will most likely need to find an estate or probate attorney to advise you on the legal aspects of settling your loved one’s estate. This attorney can also guide you through many of the steps discussed here. 

What else needs to be done within a few days of a loved one’s death?

To prevent the mail from piling up, which could increase the potential for identity theft, arrange to have it forwarded. You will need to file a request at the post office, which may involve proving that you are authorized to manage the mail, by being an executor of the estate, for example. Going through the mail can help you determine which bills need to be addressed.

What kinds of bills might I need to address?

Some of the most common kinds of bills that will need to be paid, cancelled, or otherwise dealt with include:

  • Utilities
  • Cable TV or streaming services
  • Rent or mortgage
  • Car payments
  • Mobile phone
  • Home telephone and/or internet service
  • Monthly subscriptions
  • Credit cards (Individual accounts generally need to be closed. If amounts are owed, it’s best to consult with the attorney handling the estate.) 
  • Student loans (These are generally dischargeable at death if you provide the lender with a copy of the death certificate.) 

It’s a good idea to review any incoming bills carefully. You may need to do some investigating to find out about bills that arrive electronically and those that are set to auto-pay from a credit card. Additionally, be careful about phone calls and mail offers following a loved one’s death. Inheritance theft can and does occur. 

What longer-term matters need to be taken care of?

As soon as the death certificate is available, it’s a good idea to request several copies. You may need one copy for each account that needs to be closed or otherwise managed. You can usually order death certificates directly through your local governmental office, such as the city clerk, or the funeral director should be able to assist you.

Also, it’s a good idea to secure all tangible assets, such as jewelry and other valuables. If possible, take pictures of each item and inventory it before anyone takes anything, even if those items have been willed to specific individuals.

Who else might I need to contact over the next few days or weeks?

If your loved one didn’t have a will or didn’t specify a probate lawyer, it’s a good idea to contact one to help you administer the estate. Other professionals and agencies you may need to contact include:

  • Accountant or tax preparation company. Determine whether it will be necessary to file any income, trust, or estate taxes. 
  • Investment professionals. If your loved one had any investment accounts that you know of, you’ll want to contact the investment firm(s) to identify any potential assets. Additionally, it’s a good idea to contact any banks your loved one may have used for safe deposit boxes and secure account information.
  • Insurance agents. Determine whether your loved one had any life insurance policies and request any relevant claim forms. Determine whether you’ll need to cancel any other policies, such as for a car or a home.
  • Social Security Administration. Inquire about death benefits and find out if there are any monthly benefits you may need to stop.
  • Veteran’s Affairs. Inquire about potential benefits and find out if there are any payments you may need to stop.
  • Retirement or pension benefits. Request claim forms and see if there are monthly payments that may need to be stopped.
  • Medicare. If your loved one had Medicare, including any supplemental Medicare insurance, you may need to contact Medicare directly to cancel the policy.

Are there any non-financial accounts that may require action?

Yes. To prevent identity fraud, cancel your loved one’s driver’s license as soon as possible. In many cases, you can do this online. Your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles can provide you with instructions. You will generally need to have a copy of the death certificate ready. 

It’s also a good idea to contact the major credit reporting agencies and provide them with a copy of the death certificate. This is another way to decrease the chances of identity theft. You may also want to conduct a credit report check periodically to confirm that new accounts have not been fraudulently opened. 

How should I handle social media accounts?

You may be able to memorialize your loved one’s social media accounts on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. This will allow friends to continue to share and post memories, but it will prevent anyone from logging into the account. There may be other issues that come up. Your best bet is to check in with the probate attorney or the executor of the estate, if that’s not you, before making any major decisions. If you are having a hard time handling all the various legal requirements following the death of a loved one, there are additional resources on the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Legal Help for Individuals & Families page. You can also reach the Rocket Lawyer CARES support team toll-free at (877) 885-0088, Monday through Friday, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Pacific Time.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.

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