THE BLOG

What to Do When a Loved One Dies

06/26/2013 01:34 pm ET | Updated Aug 26, 2013

Whether it's expected or accidental, the death of a loved one can shake you to the core. The last thing you'll want is to have to interrupt grieving to deal with mundane tasks, but unfortunately there are many actions that must be done on behalf of the deceased. Some must be taken immediately, while with others you can take your time and reflect on the best path to follow.

Here's a checklist in case you find yourself in this position:

Notify the proper authorities. If the death occurs under hospital or hospice watch, they will notify the proper authorities and help you make arrangements with the coroner's office for transport of the remains. If it happens at home, call local police or 911 for assistance. If he or she was an organ donor, you'll need to act quickly. If you're not sure, check their driver's license or will for instructions. Ideally, your family has had this conversation well in advance.

Contact family and friends. Reach out for help in making arrangements and locating key documents. Split up such tasks as contacting others who will want to know, providing support for a surviving spouse or children, taking care of pets, collecting mail and safeguarding the deceased's home if it's now vacant. (You may also wish to alert the police so they can keep an eye on the property.)

Make funeral arrangements. Look for a will or other document that spells out the deceased's burial or cremation wishes -- many people make funeral arrangements in advance, even paying ahead of time. The funeral home can guide you through the paperwork process, such as placing an obituary and ordering death certificates. (For more on the financial repercussions of making funeral arrangements, see my previous blog, Keeping Funeral Costs Affordable.)

Locate key documents. Hopefully, the deceased prepared a will that names an executor to oversee the disposition of his or her estate; otherwise, the court will have to appoint one. In sorting through their files, also look for: a trust; insurance policies (life, home and auto); bank, credit card, mortgage and loan accounts; safe deposit box key; contact information for lawyer, doctor, accountant or other professional advisors; and passwords to computer and other accounts.

Other notifications. Within the first few days, start notifying appropriate government agencies, creditors, insurance companies and other organizations with which the deceased had business or financial arrangements. In most cases you'll be required to submit a certified copy of the death certificate, so be sure to order ample copies. The funeral home can help, or order through the county health department.

You'll need to contact:

  • Employers. Contact current or former employers' human resources departments for information about possible final wages, accrued vacation, pension, 401(k), life insurance or other death benefits.
  • Social Security Administration. If they were receiving Social Security benefits, you'll need to stop payment right away or face a complicated repayment scenario later on. (Social Security won't pay benefits for the month in which they die.) Funeral homes often make this notification, but be sure to ask. Note: Additional benefits may be available to surviving spouses and qualified children who are under 18 or disabled, including a one-time death benefit of $255. Call 800-772-1213 or visit your local Social Security office. (See this web page for details.)
  • Medicare. Once you've notified Social Security, they will contact Medicare to cancel benefits. However, if the deceased was enrolled in a Medicare Prescription Drug Plan (Part D), Medicare Advantage Plan (Part C) or had a Medigap policy, contact them yourself at the phone numbers provided on each membership card to cancel coverage.
  • Veteran's Administration. Veterans, their immediate family members and certain others may be entitled to burial at a national cemetery. Visit this website for details.
  • U.S. Post Office. Forward their mail to a secure address so you don't miss important correspondence. Also, to reduce unwanted direct mail, register at the Direct Marketing Association's Deceased Do Not Contact site.
  • Department of Motor Vehicles. Cancel their driver's license or non-driver ID card, which will help prevent identity fraud. If they owned a car, ask about necessary paperwork to sell it or transfer ownership to an heir.
  • Financial institutions. Notify any bank or credit union where the deceased had checking, savings, loan or credit card accounts. If they had a safe deposit box and you don't have the key, ask what documentation you need to gain access.
  • Credit card issuers. Call the customer service number on each card or monthly statement for instructions to close the accounts; or, if you're the surviving spouse, to convert the account to your name only. Also, to minimize possible identity theft, contact the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) to scan their credit reports for any suspicious activity.
  • Insurance companies. If you're named a beneficiary, meet with the deceased's life insurance agent to collect proceeds or consider other payment options. Also, you should cancel auto and homeowner's policies; however, consider keeping them activated until assets are sold, in case of theft or damage.
  • Close email and social media accounts. Rules vary by carrier, so prepare to do some digging.
  • Cancel magazine subscriptions, cable TV, internet service and utilities if any apply.

And finally, whoever is named executor will have to deal with many issues related to settling the estate, including locating beneficiaries, distributing inherited property, filing final tax returns, settling outstanding debts and so on. You'd be wise to work with an attorney who specializes in probate issues. If you don't know one, this USA.gov site provides tips for finding an attorney.

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.