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Paperwork After Death: What Should You Do After Someone Dies?

Even if you see it coming, the death of a loved one is one of the most stressful and painful events a person can go through. And that would be hard enough if it didn’t also trigger an additional set of responsibilities. You may need to settle their affairs, including things like their will, estate, funeral, insurance, and more.

You may not know what you’re supposed to do just yet, and that’s ok. This article will help walk you through the steps you need to take to make sure you don’t miss any of the important details. Let’s dive in.

What should you do after someone dies?

If you find yourself in charge of managing someone’s affairs after death, there are a lot of tasks to juggle. From the simple to the complex, from time-pressing to less urgent, this article will help you differentiate between them so you can prioritize and delegate where needed.

What to do immediately after death

As we touched on, some of the matters you’ll need to take care of are more pressing than others. As such, we’ve put together a list organized by most urgent to least urgent to help you get through it.

1. Call 911

If your loved one dies at home, the first step is to call 911. The dispatcher on the other end of the line will walk you through exactly what to do and send someone out for you. If you are working with a hospice provider, you can also contact them for assistance with this process.

2. Obtain an official proclamation of death.

The first piece of paperwork you need is an official proclamation of death. You’ll need this to do anything, like closing accounts or wrapping up affairs. How you obtain the certificate, depends on where they died:

  • This official death record will automatically be given to you if your loved one dies in a hospital or nursing home by the staff of the facility.

  • If they die at home, you’ll need a medical professional to evaluate and make the declaration.

  • Finally, if they die in hospice, the nurse on duty can make the official declaration.

3. Review any plans your loved one made.

If your loved one made any arrangements for things like a funeral, cremation, or burial plot, now is the time to review that paperwork. They may have prepaid and prearranged for things or left detailed instructions for you.

Much of this will be handled later, but now is the time to review their will or trust for specific post-mortem instructions. The listed executor, successor or trustee should also be notified (if it is not you).

If no prearranged plans exist, the best next step is to talk to other family and friends to see if any of you can pull together prior conversations you’ve had with this person about their wishes.

4. Arrange plans for dependents.

If there are children or pets involved, you may need to find temporary arrangements to ensure each is still taken care of until permanent arrangements can be made.

5. Notify those in their personal and professional life.

One of the worst responsibilities you can be tasked with, for many of us, is notifying friends and family. Generally, anyone close to this person and immediate family should be notified with a phone call. For extended family and more distant friends, you can judge based on the individual person and their relationship whether you should give them a phone call, text message, letter, or let them find out through something like social media.

Their employer (if applicable) and other work organizations will also need to be notified. This includes both paid work, like their employer, and unpaid work, like any volunteer positions they may have had or social groups (like a religious organization) they frequented.

Note: They may have belongings at any of these locations that will also need a plan.

What to do within a few days of death

Everyone is different, but generally, within a few days, you will want to start to make arrangements for a funeral, memorial, or any type of celebration of life. Some paperwork matters also need to be handled at this time. Let’s talk about what to do within a few days of death.

6. Locate any outstanding end-of-life paperwork.

Now is the time to locate any documents that detail important information, including their will (if you haven’t yet found it), any trusts, accounts, passwords, and other important information. Because you’ll need these documents so frequently, we recommend making a copy for you to keep with you and share with anyone who may need them.

7. Write an obituary.

If you’re going to have an obituary sent out to the local paper or put online, now is the time to do that. Most commonly, you’ll need:

  • A photo of your loved one.

  • Their full name.

  • Date of birth.

  • Date of death.

  • Age when they died.

  • Where they lived.

  • Where they died.

  • Family members who survived them.

  • Family members gone before them.

  • Optional: Character description. If you’d like, you can also add details about the person’s character and life.

8. Arrange the celebration of life/memorial/funeral.

It’s now time to pull together any celebrations of life, funeral, or memorial arrangements. You can learn about the differences between them here to help you pick the right service for your loved one if they didn’t specify a preference.

You’ll need to consider things like:

  • Burial vs. cremation.

  • Procession services (if desired).

  • Religious and cultural norms based on them and their beliefs.

  • Open vs. closed casket (if they’re to be buried).

  • How and when to pick up ashes (if cremated).

  • Details of the event (food, readings, speeches/speakers, guests, etc.).

  • Who will pay for the event.

This list is not to overwhelm you, but simply prepare you for what may lie ahead.

9. Mail forwarding.

Set up any mail (and/or email) forwarding to ensure any notices, bills, and important documents get somewhere they can be handled. This is where you’ll find out things like:

  • What bank accounts they may have

  • If any outstanding loans need handling

  • Bills they paid

  • Etc.

Each of these accounts will need to be handled at a later date, so collecting this mail (and not letting it pile up at their home) will help you find the information you need.

What to do within a few months of death

Now that time has started passing, it’s time to get to some of the less pressing matters.

10. Get certified death certificates.

To take any action on their accounts, you will need a death certificate for each one. So it’s important to order plenty of copies of the death certificate. 10 to 20 should work for most people. You’ll need one each time you close an account, transfer ownership of an account, adjust property ownership, etc.

11. Settle the estate.

You already notified the executor in an earlier step, now is the time to start executing the will and settling the estate. Depending on the relationships and advisors they had in their lives, it could be helpful to get in touch with their attorney, financial advisor, accountant, tax preparer or CPA, etc. These professionals can help speed up the process and ensure everything is handled smoothly.

12. Pay any outstanding bills.

They may have outstanding mortgage bills, tax bills, credit card bills, utilities, or car payments that need to be kept up-to-date while you sort out the details on the backend. Though you will no longer have these liabilities in the event ownership transfers, the estate is sold, etc. it’s important to keep them up-to-date in the meantime so they are not frozen, shut down, or repossessed.

Once the assets have been accounted for, you can close any credit cards, insurance policies, and other liabilities that may have been tied up in these assets.

13. Contact insurance.

Notify any insurance agents of the deceased loved one’s death. If they had life insurance, now is the time to discuss any details. Otherwise, most insurance policies (like health) can be canceled.

14. Notify institutions.

Finally, it’s time to notify the institutions and organizations about your loved one’s death. Institutions to include:

  • Social Security Administration.

  • Voter registrar.

  • Banks.

  • The VA, if applicable.

  • Credit bureaus.

  • The DMV.

  • Any state tax boards.

  • And federal tax boards.

Notifying these institutions about the death of your love can help to prevent fraud and any painful messes for later.

Closing Thoughts: Paperwork After Death

Throughout this process, death can feel very cold and dark. Making matters worse is the grief you may be feeling throughout this experience. There’s a lot to think about, but it’s important to allow yourself time to grieve too. The death matters are incredibly time consuming, and may not leave you a lot of time for grief. So if you find yourself hit hard with emotions after completing this list, you are not alone in that feeling.

The Caregiver Resource Center of Orange County is here to support you. Check out our library of resources to help you navigate this experience. Together, we can navigate the healthcare landscape and help you provide the best possible care for your loved one(s).

Further Reading: Navigating Resentment as a Caregiver

Caregiver resentment is a common emotional challenge that family caregivers face, way more often than they may admit (so you’re not alone in this even if it feels like it). Your resentment is natural, but it doesn't have to define your caregiving experience. In the end, finding balance and support is the key to a sustainable and fulfilling caregiving journey. So let’s talk about it: dive in here.


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