The Survivor’s Checklist: Your Loved One Just Died. What Now?

What to do right away:

In the first few hours? Nothing is fine. Just breathe. There’s stuff to do, but it isn’t urgent. You don’t even need to move the body right away, it’ll keep for at least a day. It’s fine to just take a beat. This sucks, and I’m sorry.

If it was an unexpected death, call your local police department (not 911) to report an unattended death. 

  • If hospice was involved call them, instead.

Find the list of phone numbers to call. Start with:

    • A nearby friend or neighbor who can come be with you.
      • Don’t worry that it isn’t that close a relationship. Ask someone who would be who you called to watch your cat or bring in your mail if you were out of town. Ask them to come over and help cover the doors and phones and just help you not be alone. Later you can ask them to watch the house during the funeral.
    • Immediate family members: parents, children, siblings.
      • Consider asking a more loquacious family member to make some of the calls.
    • Funeral home if you’re using one.
      • You don’t have to, you know. If you’re stuck, read up on options for green burials and direct-to-cremation services.
      • Consider washing the body yourself. It’s an ancient instinct.
    • Doctor’s and visiting nurse’s offices
    • Work (yours, theirs, etc)
    • Your spiritual advisor


Within the next few days:

Write an obituary. 

  • There are templates for this, but start by listing out some stuff free-style. Favorite movies or quotes, causes they volunteered in, the places they were happiest: what memories would make you smile through your tears to remember? 

Publish the obituary in the newspapers for the areas of the principal mourners.

You’re going to want people to know this because you don’t want to deal with bozos coming up to you and chiding you to cheer up. Wear black. Being in mourning is its own thing: claim that space.

Get a sticky-note dispenser and plan to use it frequently: your brain will be hijacked by grief and you’ll be shocked at how forgetful you will be. This is NORMAL and it will pass.

Get a notebook as a central place to write down people you may wish to thank later. You’re not at your best right now, but later you will be.

Call your financial person and/or lawyer.

Secure the decedent’s personal belongings (artwork, silverware, jewelry, etc). Basically, just wait to start distributing things unless you know it won’t need to be appraised as part of an estate inventory.

Fill out an animal profile for any pets that need to be placed with as much information as you can: type of food it eats, who the vet is, anything you know about its characteristics. It’s a lot easier to rehome an animal that isn’t a complete unknown. Locally, the Dakin Animal Shelter takes in animals that need to be surrendered, preferably with a donation to cover the costs of rehoming the animal.

If your health insurance was carried through the deceased workplace, contact the Human Resources department to confirm your medical insurance coverage is still okay. (COBRA deadlines are very strict.)

  • If the deceased was employed, contact the Human Resources Dept. of his/her employer.  It can assist you with unpaid salary, vacation pay, sick pay, bonuses and commissions, life insurance benefits, pension benefits, access to qualified accounts, stock options, and any other benefits due.  If the death was due to an accident on the job, there may be accidental death benefits.

Stop any ongoing deliveries or prescription renewals.

Package up and secure meds for appropriate disposal.

Call the medical supply company to come to remove hospital beds or other rented equipment.

Notify the deceased’s creditors and close any credit card accounts, cell phone contracts, car leases, etc.

When a person passes away, any power of attorney they had given you dies with them. A new “entity” comes into being: their estate. Their estate is responsible for the bills they left behind. Keep track of what got paid by other people if you aren’t using an account you are joint on with the decedent.


In the next few weeks:

Send acknowledgment cards for flowers, donations, food, and kindness. Also, remember to thank pallbearers and ministers.

Consider joining a grief support group. Expect to be sad with stabs of grief. That’s normal and it gets less intrusive over time for most people.

If it’s debilitating, though, consider finding a grief therapist for overwhelming “complex grief”.

Notify the estate executor/executrix (sometimes called “personal representative” named in the will.

Look for money:

  • Contact your life insurance agent to collect benefits. 
  • Contact the Social Security Administration to see what benefits are available for a surviving spouse
  • Surviving spouses and children of active-duty or retired military may be eligible for benefits, such as medical care, commissary exchange, veterans’ mortgage life insurance. Contact the Department of Veteran’s Affairs if applicable
  • Contact any unions or professional and fraternal organizations the deceased was involved in to see if they were eligible for any death benefits.
  • Check with old employers, particularly schools or cities, that may have offered a life insurance benefit even to retirees.
  • Contact banks and credit card companies to see if the deceased was eligible for any death benefits. Additional death benefits may be offered with travel insurance or insurance attached to loans.
  • Check your state’s Unclaimed Property listings
  • Check the decedent’s parent’s name, too: was the decedent heir to something they didn’t get around to cleaning up?
  • Notify the agent representing your auto and homeowner’s policies.  Premiums will be reduced for one less driver (During the probate process ensure that all property owned by the estate is fully insured).


Start to close the estate (for the executor):

Begin creating a list of all the assets and liabilities of the estate. They’ll need to be “retitled” (change the ownership) and/or distributed.

Get any valuable personal belongings appraised.

Determine if there was a safe deposit box, and if so, inventory the contents.

Obtain many copies of the death certificate from the funeral home or the town – you’ll need one for each place the decedent did business, from their cellphone account to their IRA. 

Contact the attorney, if you have one, or go to the County Courthouse and get appointed as the “personal representative” of the estate (what used to be called the “executrix” or “executor” by your local county probate court.

Contact the financial planner and/or accountant to start getting accounts retitled.

  • Do NOT try to invest the proceeds of insurance policies or make any large purchases; it’s fine to leave things in cash for six months or so.
  • Although you may not stay with the same advisor the decedent used, it makes sense to let them help you with the retitling. Just don’t let them reinvest the money until your future starts to snap into better focus.

Change the car, boat, and real estate titles

Collect the debts owed to the estate or have the payments directed to the estate.

File a federal estate transfer tax return within nine months after the death if the estate’s value is greater than the estate tax exemption for the year of the death. (Meaning, if the total of the estate is over $1,000,000 including life insurance and real estate, get the advice of an attorney, accountant, or financial planner.)

File the final return for the decedent during tax time if they have an income tax filing requirement.

After the last bills are paid, distribute the final amount of money out to the heirs. 

Consider having a family reunion at this point, to deliberately try to create a new framework for how to be a family in your new configuration.