When a loved one dies, you may feel grief, pain, regret, anger, or all these emotions. Your life will never be the same without them.
The emotion you don’t hear about as often is panic. It’s normal to feel that way once you realize you have no clue what to do next.
We’ve put together this guide to reduce stress and help you take the proper steps.
Topics Covered in this article
Take These Steps Right Away
Many of the people you’ll work with while settling your loved one’s affairs will be happy to help however they can.
That being said, taking specific steps quickly is necessary to manage everything else better.
Get an official declaration of death
The death certificate is the most crucial document you need to get after someone dies. This official document legally certifies that someone is no longer living.
It will allow you to close bank accounts, cancel subscriptions, claim a life insurance benefit, and much more.
According to the CDC, a doctor, medical examiner, or coroner typically certifies the death.
The company that handled the final arrangements—usually a mortuary, funeral home, or crematory—will prepare and formally file the death certificate with the National Vital Statistics System.
It’s also common for a physician or other healthcare provider to file a death certificate. But it’s not something you can do yourself.
If you’re a doctor, you might have someone else, like the county coroner, issue the declaration of death.
Make arrangements to transport the body
While it’s not a pleasant task, somebody must move your loved one’s body. You may need to contact a funeral director (aka mortician) to take the body to the funeral home, mortuary, or crematorium.
If the death happened in a hospital or hospice care facility, the on-duty staff typically helps with this process.
You’ll need to handle organ donation quickly if your loved one is an organ donor. The mortician, health care provider, or medical facility will help you contact the proper authorities.
Make sure dependents have care
Someone must assume immediate care of children, adults, and pets who relied on the deceased for their basic needs.
Reach out to the deceased individual’s close relatives and friends who can supervise and protect them — at least temporarily.
Ideally, the deceased will have named guardians in their will. Those people should step in as soon as possible.
If the person who passed away did not make arrangements ahead of time, the court might get involved. In a worst-case scenario, dependents could end up in foster care.
Don’t forget that kids need help dealing with bereavement, too.
Tell family and close friends
Relaying the bad news of a loved one’s passing to family and friends won’t be easy. But despite your reservations, it’s important not to put off this task.
You could enlist another close friend or relative to help you contact those who need to know first through phone calls, emails, or texts.
Tell the deceased’s family members first. Next, contact their employer—especially if your loved one held a demanding job.
Teachers and medical professionals are two jobs that the employer must find someone to fill ASAP.
Follow up by telling close friends, coworkers, or others who may need to know about the death immediately.
Secure the home
In the chaos of death, doors or windows can be left open or unlocked, and security systems turned off.
Ask someone trustworthy to secure the residence. House sitting, trash removal, yard maintenance, plant watering, and mail gathering are also important.
Keep everyone from moving in. They might steal something, take poor care of the home, or refuse to move out. It will be easier to manage the estate if no one new starts living there.
Get emotional support
When grieving the death of someone close to you, it’s important to get emotional support.
Friends and family who’ve experienced similar losses are usually more than happy to listen and help however they can.
Of course, grief support groups, some of which are free, are another option that can help you cope with the death of someone you were close to.
Grief counselors certified by the American Academy of Grief Counseling may also be helpful. Contacting a church or religious group can provide comfort as well.
The American Red Cross also offers help finding emotional and financial support after a death.
You might want to be alone while you grieve. If so, you can still get support. There are dozens of podcasts, books, Reddit posts, and YouTube videos about grief.
They can help you process what you’re going through and feel less alone.
How To Handle Final Arrangements
Within a couple of days, you’ll want to handle final arrangements for the deceased. Here are the steps involved.
Review final wishes
Try to find out if the deceased made their final wishes known in writing. Have they pre-planned and prepaid for their funeral, burial, or cremation?
If so, you’ll be able to honor their wishes and save money. Plus, you’ll avoid many planning tasks that can be stressful to deal with while you’re grieving.
If not, you’ll need to make your best guess about what they would have wanted. You’ll also need to consider what the survivors want.
To keep the peace, family members may need to compromise and make difficult choices if they want different things.
People often keep wills, funeral plans, and insurance policies in a filing cabinet, a safe, or with their attorney.
But some people keep important papers in a shoebox in a closet, so you might have to do some digging. And sometimes, there are no documents at all.
A final wishes guide is different from a will. A final wishes guide is nothing more than a set of instructions for how the deceased would like to be remembered.
A final wishes guide will spell out their preferences for a casket, flowers, songs, guests, music, colors, viewing, and other aspects of a funeral service and visitation.
The difference between final wishes and a will
A will is a legal document that outlines what to do with the deceased’s property.
For example, a will names new owners for real estate, pets, personal belongings, cash, vehicles, and investments. Assuming the will is valid, the executor must follow its instructions.
It’s best to consult a wills and trusts attorney before executing a will when valuable assets are involved, or family disputes seem likely.
Check your budget
Everyone has a different budget for what they can spend on final arrangements. That budget depends on your financial circumstances.
But it also depends on your and your loved one’s values around how much to spend on after-death products and services.
People who have planned for their deaths may have left financial resources to cover these costs.
They might have bought a pre-paid funeral plan or set up a transfer-on-death (TOD) account. A TOD account is payable to the beneficiary immediately upon death (after providing a death certificate to the bank).
Another is a life insurance policy. That might be a term or permanent policy. The best final expense insurance can offer an affordable way to provide $5,000 to $50,000 to your beneficiaries after death.
Shop around: It’s not tacky
No matter how you’re paying, you can shop around for death care services. Comparing your options can save you hundreds or thousands of dollars.
Considering costs is not disrespectful to the deceased. In many cases, it will align with their values.
Don’t let a funeral home prey on your emotions, so you spend more money. There’s no reason to strain your finances to buy the nicest casket.
Federal law requires funeral homes to disclose their prices to you online, over the phone, or in person.
Take advantage of your consumer rights and only purchase the products and services you want at a comfortable price.
Decide how to handle the body
You have several options for handling the body:
- Traditional burial
- Green burial
- Backyard burial (in states that allow it)
- Flame cremation
- Water cremation (in states that allow it)
- Entombment in a mausoleum
You also have many options for caskets at different price points.
Consumer and funeral home rights
Both federal and state laws spell out customers’ and funeral directors’ rights. Here are a few:
- You don’t have to buy a casket or urn directly from a funeral home or crematory.
- You have the right to stay with the body if they died at home.
- You also have the right to transport the body to your home if they died elsewhere.
- You can even have a home funeral, home death-care guide, death doula, or death midwife can help you lovingly tend to the body and say goodbye at your own pace.
- You also have the right to see your loved one, no matter their body’s condition.
You don’t always have to embalm the body, but it depends on state law. If you won’t be able to bury or cremate your loved one shortly after death, or if you want to transport the body across state lines, you might have to embalm them.
Refrigeration can be an alternative to embalming to preserve the body temporarily.
Funeral homes are private businesses, and they have rights, too, including the right to limit visitation hours and the right to require embalming for a public funeral.
Plan funeral and memorial services
You don’t have to hold a funeral or memorial service for the deceased, but many people choose to. A ceremony can be essential for saying goodbye and gathering with loved ones.
It can provide comfort and support for the grieving.
It’s also an opportunity to celebrate and share memories of the deceased. In fact, it’s become increasingly popular to hold a celebration of life ceremonies as a less-somber alternative to a traditional funeral or burial.
For a fee, a funeral home can help you plan and host a service. If you’d like to hold an open-casket funeral, it’s best to have the body embalmed as soon as possible.
It’s also best to hold the service as soon as loved ones are available. While embalming does preserve the body, it also changes it.
Religious or family traditions may affect your decisions about where to hold services, how to prepare the body, and what will happen during the service.
You might conduct a service at a church, chapel, synagogue, funeral home, private residence, or graveside. It might be performed by a member of the clergy or by family members.
You have the right to change funeral homes. Maybe you started making arrangements with a particular funeral home, but your gut is telling you it’s not the right choice.
If you switch, you will have to pay the first funeral home for any work they’ve done. That might include transporting the body, storing it, and even embalming.
You may also pay fees to the first funeral home and the new funeral home to forward and receive the body.
Funeral homes do much more than hold services honoring the dead. Funeral directors can be involved in every aspect of the process, from removing the body from the place of death to making arrangements for burial and cremation.
You can choose which products and services you wish to purchase. You can also decide whether to purchase a package of services or buy items a la carte.
A la carte options can be helpful if you’re doing a home funeral but need someone to transport the body afterward.
Tell Less-Close Contacts
Loved ones of the deceased will usually know the key people to share the sad news with. But what about the less-obvious people?
To figure out whom to contact, make a list. Identify all the types of people the deceased knew so that you can fill in the names. Here are the main categories and some examples.
- Frequent acquaintances: Anyone who will be concerned when your loved one doesn’t show up to their next class, meeting, or gathering. These people might include tennis instructors, golf buddies, drinking buddies, book club members, volunteer groups, senior center regulars, and religious group members.
- Professional contacts: People like former coworkers, colleagues, and members of a professional organization the deceased was active in.
- Old friends: Those who knew your loved one back in the day, but may not have been in touch frequently, like childhood friends, high school and college friends, and military friends.
- More distant relatives: People your close relatives may not have told yet, like stepsiblings or second cousins.
- Health care providers: Anyone the deceased regularly saw who might not have been notified already. That might be a primary care physician, dentist, chiropractor, eye doctor, massage therapist, psychiatrist, or mental health professional.
- Neighbors: Folks who lived near your loved one, now or in the past.
- Former students: If your loved one was a teacher or professor.
It’s a lot of work to figure out whom to contact and track them down—then deal with your emotions and other people’s reactions to the news. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you can locate one college friend or one coworker, they might be able to notify the others in that category.
Forward Postal Mail
Keep an eye out for bills, especially property taxes, mortgage payments, car payments, and homeowners insurance.
If you have access to the deceased’s email account or online accounts, try to keep that access so you can keep an eye out for bills to pay and services to cancel.
Contact the US Postal Service to block or forward the deceased’s mail. And sign them up for the Deceased Do Not Contact list to stop marketing mail.
Get certified copies of the death certificate
You’ll need many copies, but each copy will cost money. For example, in California, certified copies are $24 each. In Nevada, the cost is $22 or $25, depending on the county.
Try to estimate how many you’ll need by reading through this list of places where you’ll need to send out death certificates. It can take several weeks for the state to process your request.
You can order death certificate copies from:
- Whoever filed the death certificate (such as the funeral home, mortuary, or crematory)
- The department of vital records in the state where the certificate was filed
- A third-party service, such as VitalChek, may charge a processing fee and a shipping fee
Go to probate court
Probate is when a local court supervises authenticating a last will and testament—if one exists—and carrying out its wishes.
What if someone dies without a will? That is called dying intestate. Probate handles that, too.
Let’s assume there’s a will. The executor needs to take the will to the probate court for the court to declare it valid. Once this happens, the executor can do their job.
If your loved one dies without a will, the probate court will appoint an attorney to act as executor of the estate. They’ll distribute assets according to state intestacy laws.
These laws explain who is considered next of kin and in what order.
Either way, probate costs money. There are court fees that have to be paid from the deceased’s assets.
When the estate is insolvent and doesn’t have enough money to cover all the bills the deceased owed, state law determines who gets paid and in what order.
One of the great things about final expense insurance is that it isn’t part of the deceased’s estate. It doesn’t have to go through probate, creditors can’t take it, and it’s not taxed.
The beneficiaries can get the money almost right away after the policyholder dies.
Should you hire an attorney for probate court?
The executor may want to hire professional help from an attorney and an accountant if they don’t know what they’re doing, even if the estate is simple.
But if the estate is complicated or the will might be contested, getting help is a good idea.
If the executor doesn’t follow the will’s instructions, they could expose themselves to liability. And the last thing the deceased would have wanted is a legal battle over their property because their executor didn’t follow the will.
After all, much thought goes into writing a will and choosing a representative.
If you’re the representative, know that having an attorney guide you through the process can save you time and provide reassurance.
Resources like Nolo and the American Bar Association can help you find a probate lawyer.
Before hiring or even talking to an attorney, verify their license and ensure they’re in good standing with the state bar association. You can look this information up online for free.
Here’s Nevada’s attorney lookup site, for example.
Identify the deceased’s assets and liabilities
The probate process involves identifying, locating, and determining the value of the deceased’s assets—bank accounts, real estate, vehicles, and collectibles.
Some assets may be hard to track, especially if they’re out of sight. Don’t forget to look for storage units, safe deposit boxes, and digital assets like cryptocurrency and NFTs.
The executor must also identify the deceased’s liabilities, like bills and taxes. Some assets may need to be liquidated (sold) to pay off these obligations.
Creditors will have a certain amount of time to file claims against the estate. Some use programs to learn when probate cases are opened, so they don’t miss their opportunity to get paid.
Finally, the court will oversee the executor’s distribution of the remaining assets.
Every state has a unique probate process.
- Here’s a list of links to every state’s probate laws.
- For more user-friendly explanations, check out Nolo’s articles on estate planning laws by state.
No matter what, there will be many steps to follow and paperwork to complete.
The probate process can take months. It depends on factors like these:
- How complex the decedent’s estate is
- Whether they died with a valid will
- How busy the probate court is
- How tedious the state’s laws are
- Whether anyone contests the will
Hold an estate sale and donate belongings
Once the executor has distributed the deceased’s remaining assets, it’s time to handle the leftover possessions. What can look like piles of junk to an outsider can be full of meaningful objects to those who loved the deceased.
When surviving family members get along, this can be a democratic process. After relatives have taken what they want, you can offer the remaining items to friends.
When you’re left with the stuff no one wants, an estate sale can help you sell off the rest. Despite the fancy name, it can be nothing more than a massive garage sale.
If your loved one owned collectibles, antiques, or other valuable items, it might be worth the money to hire an estate sale professional.
They will organize and price everything, advertise the sale, set everything up, deal with customers, and collect their money.
All of this can be too much to deal with for many grieving families, however. If the home must be sold and cleared out, you could hire a company to pack everything up and haul it away.
Consider donating items rather than sending them to a landfill.
Another option is to hire a company to pack everything up and place it in storage. That way, you can deal with it later. You’ll need to pay for the initial packing and moving, plus a monthly storage fee.
Send Out Death Certificates
Here’s a list of places where the executor may need to send an official death certificate and why.
- Social Security Administration. If the deceased received any Social Security benefits, it’s a high priority to notify the SSA. That will avoid or minimize overpayments and fines. At the same time, you can check eligibility and apply for survivor benefits.
- Pension administrator. If the deceased received a pension, the administrator needs to know. Dead people can’t collect pensions. If applicable, benefits will be stopped or changed to spousal or survivor benefits.
- Annuity provider. Like pension payments, annuity payments either cease at death or transfer to a spouse or other beneficiary. Annuity payments received after death will need to be returned.
- Family court. Let the court know if the deceased was responsible for child support or alimony payments. The deceased’s estate may be responsible for additional payments. If the custodial parent dies, the court may need to order that child support be redirected to the new guardian.
- Financial advisor. The deceased’s financial advisor can help marshal the assets. They will also want to know that their client has passed away.
- Financial institutions. If the deceased set up transfer-on-death designations, account assets can be paid to beneficiaries as soon as the bank or brokerage receives the death certificate. These assets won’t go through probate. However, you may not want to notify them right away. Freezing or closing the account could mean automatic payments stop going through. Essential bills, like the deceased’s mortgage, won’t get paid, which could create major problems. It’s essential to collect the deceased’s last paycheck. Make sure it includes any vacation or personal time they haven’t used.
- Life insurance company. Track down any life insurance policies the deceased owned. They purchased these policies specifically to help their loved ones. It would be a shame not to collect the benefits, especially if survivors need money immediately.
- Other insurance companies. You’ll want to keep some types of insurance active for now, such as homeowners, renters, flood, earthquake, and auto. These policies will protect the deceased’s assets until the new owner takes the title. For other policies, like health insurance or health-cost-sharing ministries, you can notify them immediately and stop further premium payments.
- Government agencies. Each of these steps will help prevent fraud. Contact the state department of motor vehicles to cancel the deceased’s driver’s license. Contact the U.S. State Department to cancel their passport. Contact the local voter registration agency to remove the deceased’s name from voter rolls. Notify the IRS of the death.
- Credit agencies. Notifying Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion can also prevent fraud.
- Veterans Affairs. Contact the VA if the deceased served in the military and was honorably discharged. The VA provides benefits to help families with burial and memorial services at VA cemeteries.
Some of the services your loved one received are no longer needed and should be canceled within the first few weeks of their passing.
You may need a copy of the death certificate to stop some services and close the accounts. Check the deceased’s bills for service providers like these:
Internet and cable TV
- AT&T U-verse
Cell phone service
- T-Mobile (and former Sprint customers)
- Mint Mobile
- Xfinity Mobile
- Google Fi
- US Mobile
- Acorn TV
- Amazon Prime Video
- CBS All Access
- DIRECTV STREAM
- Frndly TV
- HBO Max
- Sling TV
- YouTube TV
Other subscriptions and services
- Amazon Prime
- Amazon Subscribe and Save
- Apps — financial or other
- Book or audiobook subscriptions — both print and digital
- Car wash subscriptions
- Clothing subscriptions
- Cloud storage (Apple iCloud, Dropbox)
- Dating services
- Dental savings clubs
- Eyewear savings clubs
- Gaming subscriptions
- Gym or fitness memberships — in person and virtual
- Home security services
- Library cards
- Magazine subscriptions — both print and digital
- Meal delivery services
- Music subscriptions
- Newspaper subscriptions — both print and digital
- Other recurring deliveries
- Pet supply memberships and automatic deliveries
- Pharmacy subscriptions
- Photo storage
- Season tickets (sports teams, museums, etc.)
- Shaving clubs
- Software subscriptions
- Sports subscriptions
- Warehouse clubs
- Websites — hosting, domain name, SSL, etc.
At some point, you’ll probably have to cancel the utilities at the residence of the departed. However, it would be best if you didn’t do it immediately.
Stopping the utilities too soon could cause frozen pipes or other damage to the home. It could also put you in the dark—with no WiFi or flushable toilet—while dealing with personal effects.
Instead, have the water, sewer, electricity, gas, trash, and other utilities transferred to the executor, who can pay the bills from the estate’s assets.
Again, you may need a copy of the death certificate to get utility accounts transferred or canceled.
Handle Online Accounts And Digital Records
Some companies don’t make it easy to learn how to close a deceased person’s email, social media, or other online accounts.
Even when they do, it can be stressful to find the right instruction and contact pages yourself. This list of links can help you get started.
If your loved one had an email account (and there’s a good chance they had several), the service provider will probably need a copy of the death certificate to close the account.
They are unlikely to grant you access because of their privacy policies.
If you do nothing, the provider will close the account after a long enough period of inactivity.
But closing it proactively is a good way to prevent hackers from taking over and stealing personal info or spamming your loved one’s contacts. Getting a new email from a deceased loved one can be a real gut punch.
Your first thought might be, “Who cares whether I close a deceased person’s social media account?”
Similar to email, you might want to do it because hackers may try to take over the account if you leave it open.
New activity on a deceased person’s account can be confusing and disturbing to loved ones, friends, and colleagues who suddenly see new messages or content from the person who has passed away.
If you don’t want to close the account and lose access to old photos and posts, some companies will let you memorialize them instead.
Breaking the news on social media
Many people do post touching tributes honoring the death of someone they loved. But before you do, consider the deceased. Would they want their passing announced on social media?
Remember that anyone can copy and paste or screenshot the information, even if you’re posting the news on your account. It’s not private.
If your loved one kept their affairs to themselves, you might want to skip it.
Security concerns are another reason to keep the information off social media.
It’s possible for a scammer to see the post and use the information they find for identity theft or to target the home for a burglary.
Frequently Asked Questions
Unfortunately, dying does not wipe out most of your debts. Instead, co-signers, co-owners, or your estate become responsible for them. Your obligations have to be repaid from your assets before your heirs receive what you’ve left to them. For example, if you die with a mortgage, your estate must keep paying it to avoid foreclosure. If heirs can afford the payments, the mortgage servicer might transfer the loan to them. If the home gets sold, the proceeds pay off the mortgage lender and other creditors. Only what’s left will go to heirs. If there’s any good news here, federal student loans get wiped out when you die. Some private student lenders discharge loans at death, too.
If your loved one incurred medical debt before passing away, their estate should pay any medical bills they owe. However, if the unpaid debt is larger than the estate’s value, the court decides which creditors get paid first, and how much they get. Consumers have rights under federal law about medical debt collection. Learn your state’s laws about who is responsible for the deceased’s medical debt, including laws about Medicaid recovery. And talk to an elder law attorney if you need help.
You may need a lawyer when someone dies if their estate is complex. For example, if the deceased has a lot of assets, has an invalid will, or has relatives contesting the will, a probate attorney may be able to help.