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

What to do right away:

In the first hour? Nothing is fine. Just breathe. It’s fine to just take a beat. 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 as long as you cool it down. This sucks, and I’m sorry. If hospice was involved, call them. If it was an unexpected death, but resuscitation attempts would be gruesome and/or inappropriate, call your local police department (not 911) to report the unattended death. Find your 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 you might call 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, if you like, or maybe just help you not be alone.
      • Try out saying the words out loud “John just died.”
      • Later you can ask them to watch the house during the funeral.
  • Call a family member to say it out loud again.
    • Consider asking a more loquacious family member to make some of the other calls to family unless you’re okay with being in the position of having to comfort others right now.
  • Call others that really have to be called by you: parents, children, siblings.
  • 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 to care for our loved ones by cleaning them up.
  • Doctor’s and visiting nurse’s offices if you need to cancel any appointments coming up soon.
  • Work (yours, theirs)
  • 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? 
  • Ask your newspaper for help writing it if you want help.
Publish the obituary in the newspapers for the areas of the principal mourners.
  • You’re going to want people to know about the death because you’ll want to cut down on the number of people coming up to cheerfully ask you how your loved one is doing – and then requiring that you comfort THEM!
  • It also cuts down on people chiding you to cheer up.

Consider wearing 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 valuables (artwork, silverware, jewelry, etc). Don’t start distributing things unless you know they 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 workplace of the deceased, contact that organization’s Human Resources department to verify 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. You can usually find a pharmacy that will safely dispose of them for you. 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. Notify the estate executor/executrix (sometimes called “personal representative” named in the will.

In the next few weeks:

Send acknowledgment cards for flowers, donations, food, and kindness. Also, remember to thank pallbearers and ministers. Find the calendar of the deceased and cancel any upcoming appointments – dentist, doctor, etc. During the probate process ensure that all property owned by the estate is fully insured. Notify the agent representing the auto and homeowner’s policies.  Premiums will be reduced for one fewer driver. 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”.  

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 provide 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 whether 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 parents’ names, too: was the decedent heir to something they didn’t get around to cleaning up?

For the Personal Representative: Start to close the estate:

Begin by 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 whether there was a safe deposit box, and if so, inventory the contents. Count up the number of places the decedent did business or had accounts, from their cellphone account to their IRA. That’s the number of death certificates you’ll need to obtain from the funeral home or the town. 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 click into better focus.
Change car, boat, and real estate titles Collect any debts owed to the estate or have the payments directed to the estate. Within nine months after the death, file a federal estate transfer tax return if the estate’s value is greater than the estate tax exemption for the year of the death. (Meaning, if the total value 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 income tax return for the decedent during tax time. 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 intentionally start creating a new framework for how to be a family in your new configuration.
I’m sorry you’re living through this, but it’s a well-trod path and you’ll get through it, one day at a time.