What to Do When a Loved One Dies

Erin OsterhausNovember 14, 2022


Cartoon moon with birds, humans

Losing a loved one is always difficult. No matter whether you were somewhat prepared for the loss, or it came altogether unexpectedly, saying goodbye is never easy. The days, weeks, and months following the death of a loved one can be incredibly difficult as you try to deal with your grief.

And yet, it is precisely during this time that you might find yourself dealing with a variety of tasks and financial decisions. You may need to make final arrangements, notify various businesses and government agencies, settle your loved one’s estate, and provide for your own financial security. We’ve compiled a list designed to help you navigate the financial, practical, and government side of this challenging time.

Throughout this article, we refer to “family” and “family members” frequently. Family can take many forms, so this may refer to your immediate family, your chosen family or some combination of the two.

Immediate Tasks

In the following days and weeks after your loved one passes away, there are certain tasks that need to be completed in a timely manner. If you have a support system or an extended network of family members, this is the time to delegate any tasks you can.

1. Obtain a Legal Pronouncement of Death

One of the first things you should do after a loved one dies is obtain certified copies of the death certificate. Your family doctor or medical examiner should be able to provide you with the death certificate within 24 hours of your loved one’s death. The funeral home should complete the form and file it with the state. Get several certified copies (photocopies may not be accepted) — you will need them when applying for benefits and settling the estate.

2. Notify Family Members

Upon the death of your loved one, call close family members, friends, and clergy first. If they’re available for support, take them up on it. If you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to contact the deceased’s employer, coworkers, close acquaintances, and old friends, your extended network may be able to take this on.

However you choose to complete this task, start with the people closest to the deceased. News can spread fast in the age of social media, and it’s likely your loved one would have preferred those close to them learn of their death directly from a family member or close friend.

3. Find Estate Planning Documents

Review your loved one’s financial affairs. Look for estate planning documents (like a will or trusts) and other relevant documents, like deeds and titles. Also locate any marriage certificates, birth or adoption certificates, and military discharge papers, which you may need to apply for benefits. These documents may be found in a safe-deposit box, or their attorney may have copies.

Additionally, it’s a good idea to make a list of your loved one’s assets and put safeguards in place to protect any property they may have owned. Make sure mortgage and insurance payments continue to be made while the estate is being settled.

4. Make Final Arrangements

While it’s not an easy step, it needs to be done. If you wish, now is the time to place an obituary in the paper. You’ll may also be arranging a funeral, cremation, or memorial service soon after your loved one dies. They may have made arrangements ahead of time. Look among their papers for a letter of instruction containing final wishes. Such instructions may also be stated in his or her will or other estate planning documents.

Tasks to Complete Within a Few Days

5. Notify Financial Institutions and Business Contacts

Once you’ve notified friends and family, you should also make a few formal calls to inform anyone who would need to know about your loved one’s death for financial or business purposes. For instance:

  • Social Security Administration: You can call 1-800-772-1213 if your loved one was receiving Social Security benefits. If they received payments via direct deposit, request that the bank return funds received for the month of death and thereafter to Social Security. Don’t cash any Social Security checks received by mail and return all checks to Social Security as soon as possible. As a note, surviving spouses and other family members may be eligible for a $255 lump-sum death benefit and/or survivor’s benefits. You can go to www.ssa.gov for more information.
  • Past and current employers: Contact past and current employers regarding pension or retirement plans and contact any IRA custodians or trustees. Review designated beneficiaries and post-death distribution options. If your loved one was still working, arrange to retrieve their belongings from his or her workplace. You should also remember to collect any salary, vacation, or sick pay owed to them, and be sure to ask about continuing health insurance coverage and potential survivor’s benefits for a spouse or children. Unions and professional organizations may also offer death benefits. If the death was work-related, the decedent’s estate or beneficiaries may be entitled to worker’s compensation benefits.
  • Insurance companies: Locate any insurance policies your loved one may have owned. These could include individual and group life insurance, mortgage insurance, auto credit life insurance, accidental death and dismemberment, credit card insurance, and annuities. Contact all insurance companies to file claims.
  • Credit card companies: Contact all credit card companies and let them know your loved one has passed away. You should then cancel all cards as well, unless you’re named on the account and wish to retain the card.
  • Banks and financial institutions: Contact banks and other financial institutions where your loved one may have held assets. You should retitle any jointly held assets, such as bank accounts, automobiles, stocks and bonds, and real estate.

Tasks to Complete Within 3 to 9 Months

Once the initial shock of losing a family member or loved one has passed, there are still matters to resolve. Their estate will need to be settled, and their remaining assets redistributed according to their wishes.

6. File with Appropriate Probate Court

If real estate was owned out of state, file ancillary probate in that state also. If there is no will, contact the probate court for instructions, or contact a probate attorney for assistance.

7. Notify Creditors

Notify the decedent’s creditors by mail and by placing a notice in the newspaper. Claims must be made within the statute of limitations, which varies from state to state (30 days from actual notice is common). Insist upon proof of all claims.

8. File Federal Estate Tax Return

A federal estate tax return may need to be filed within 9 months of death. State laws vary, but state estate tax and/or inheritance tax returns may also need to be filed. Federal and state income taxes are due for the year of death on the normal filing date, unless an extension is requested. If there are trusts, separate income tax returns may need to be filed. You may want to seek the advice of a tax professional.

Take a Deep Breath

Figuring out what to do after the death of a family member or loved one can be overwhelming. While completing the administrative tasks associated with tying up their worldly affairs may be difficult, having a clear roadmap of what needs to be done can be immensely helpful. Use the steps above as a guide and ask for support from friends and family as you navigate life after your loved one has passed away.

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Erin Osterhaus

Erin is a personal finance writer based in Austin, Texas. Her work has been featured on TechRepublic, Yahoo Small Business, and Entrepreneur.com. She’s been passionate about helping others manage their money since she successfully paid off $60,000 in student loans in four years. When she’s not writing, Erin loves reading, studying languages, and spending time with her family.