Losing a loved one is incredibly difficult. Even in cases where we have time to prepare ourselves for the inevitable, no amount of preparation is enough. However, no matter how hard it is to think and act, some things must be taken care of after the death of a loved one.
This handy to-do list is meant to guide you through each of the tasks you might have to attend after the death of a loved one, depending on your role in the decedent's (deceased person's) end-of-life plans. If no plans were made, some of these steps might be a little more difficult. Let us go in order of what is most important and requires immediate attention.
These are the steps you will likely have to take immediately after the death of a loved one.
If you find your loved one and are not sure if they are dead, call an ambulance right away. Otherwise, your first call will depend highly on your circumstances. If your loved one died in hospice care, call their agency or your loved one's doctor to figure out your next steps. A nurse or physician will likely be called to the scene to proclaim the decedent as dead officially.
If they lived alone and were not in anyone's care, call their doctor, the family doctor, or 911. The police may arrive on the scene to investigate and determine foul play – this can be upsetting. Consider discussing end-of-life plans and contingencies with your loved one and their doctor while they are still alive.
Once a medical professional has made a legal pronouncement of death, someone will come to pick the body up to be brought to a mortuary or crematorium based on the decedent's wishes. If foul play was suspected, they might first be brought to a coroner. If the decedent's doctor was not the one to pronounce them dead, your next call should be to them. Close friends and family members should know as soon as possible, as well.
The hospice nurse or the doctor might ask you at the scene about any existing or known funeral arrangements. If your loved one had specific funeral wishes, then the right mortuary will have to be contacted to prepare the body.
If the decedent was an organ donor, then the doctor on the scene must be notified as soon as possible. The proper documents must be provided to prove the donor status (a donor card, documentation, or the decedent's name on the state registry).
While vital organs typically cannot be used within a short time after death (unless your loved one died in a hospital or nearby, and their organs can be kept alive artificially), other tissues remain viable. If it was your loved one's wish to be a donor, time is of the essence.
After all, the most immediate concerns are dealt with; it may be a good idea to contact your loved one's estate planning professional or the family attorney. They will likely have a copy of several relevant and necessary documents regarding your loved one's end-of-life care, estate plans, funeral arrangements, and more. They will also typically know what documents you should prepare for the next coming days and weeks and which documents have what priority.
After receiving a death certificate from a medical professional and making time-sensitive arrangements for organ donation and funeral rites, the next priority is caring for everything your loved one left behind, including their home, pets, bills, and gathering essential documents assets for the inheritance process.
If you have discussed estate planning with your loved one or found their will, you will likely know who they have elected as their representative or executor. You will have to bring a death certificate to the local probate court and begin the probate process to grant that person their rights as an executor properly.
If no will exist or no executor was named, the courts will pick one – usually the most qualified relative. If you are named executor/personal representative, it is your responsibility to take care of your loved one's due bills, property, and estate. If your loved one had any trusts, then every respective trustee must be notified.
If your loved one left behind any pets, see to it that they're taken care of, either in the care of a family member (yourself or someone else) or a kennel. Refer to any documents clarifying who should care for their pet (such as a pet trust or a note in their will) or find someone in the family who loves animals. It is important to note that a will cannot compel someone to care for a pet in a certain way or use any bequeathed assets specifically for pet care. That is where a pet trust can come in handy.
Speaking of wills and trusts, these documents will be incredibly important in the coming days. If no estate planning documents were left behind, all personal belongings and assets not otherwise accounted for (through designated beneficiaries, for example) would be distributed according to state law. If there was a will, bring it along with a death certificate to the local courts. If there are trusts, notify the respective trustees.
Contact the local post office and request that all your loved one's mail gets forwarded to a different address. This ensures that any bills and important information, personal or otherwise, are not sent to an empty or vacant home.
Coordinate with the decedent's attorney and accountant to gather and keep safe any relevant and vital documents, including deeds and titles, bank account information, account statements, insurance policies, receipts, passports, donor cards, visas, and so on. Your loved one's lawyer may have a complete list of any relevant information you might have to find.
If anything was left in a loved one's safety deposit box and no one alive retains the information necessary to open it, coordinate with the bank to clarify what they need before they can open it for you. Suppose a probate court has declared you to be the decedent's representative for the estate. Any documentation proving the declaration (including a copy of the death certificate) may be enough to convince the bank or institution to open the safe.
Now that a few days have passed, you should attend to organizing and paying for the funeral.
If your loved one lived alone, then you can ask a neighbor or family member to keep an eye on it or move in temporarily. You can also call the police and ask them to periodically check-in.
Some other things to keep in mind past the first week after the death of a loved one include (but is not limited to):
Losing a loved one is hard, and while the first few days afterward can be hectic, do not be afraid to ask for help, and take some time for yourself. There is no rush to process the death of a loved one.
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