When a loved one dies, the last thing you want to think about is paperwork. Pulling family and friends close around, working through and coming to terms with grief, and taking care of emotional needs can seem like the only important things worth addressing in the days, and even weeks after losing someone close to you.
That’s why the bureaucratic tasks—handling bills, dealing with a funeral home, finding bank accounts—can take people by surprise, says Eva Shaw, author of What to Do When a Loved One Dies. “Those are things that there’s never a right time for,” Shaw says. But keeping the logistics from spiraling out of control help prevent unexpected problems in the days and months after a death. We talked to several experts about where to start.
Ensure a formal declaration of death
When someone passes, a doctor or medical professional has to pronounce them dead in order for the process to move forward. If someone dies in a hospital or a nursing home, the staff on hand provide that service. However, if someone dies at home, particularly if it was unexpected, those with them should call 9-1-1. The deceased is then typically transported to an emergency room, where they can be declared dead and moved to a funeral home.
Inform friends and family
Calls to family, friends, and acquaintances of the person who died should happen within a few days of the death, and you can start to make arrangements for a memorial or service, Shaw says. An obituary can be cathartic to write, and distributing it can do some of the hard work of spreading the sad news, says Scott Smith, author of When Someone Dies: The Practical Guide to the Logistics of Death. However, they’re not necessary, and it’s certainly not necessary to pay for them to be published in a newspaper.
Make burial arrangements
At the mortuary, you'll have choices to make around cremation or burial. It’s important to know your rights in these situations, Smith says. For instance, morticians might try to sell you an urn for ashes, even though you're not required to have one. “Much of the industry is very ethical, but there are bad players out there," Smith says. “They’re for-profit companies."
The funeral home or mortuary will also provide death certificates, and it’s important to get multiple copies, Smith says. They’ll become important later on for dealing with financial institutions, so having between five and ten is a good bet—err on the side of more if the deceased had complicated finances.
Even with a straightforward cremation, the funeral costs—of transporting the body, burials, and so on—can add up, which Smith says is good to keep in mind. Some might be covered if the deceased was in the military, so contacting those groups to identify what those rights might be is also key, he says.
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Turn off the water and cancel Social Security
The moment someone dies, any Social Security benefits they were receiving stop, Smith says. It’s important not to cash any checks that come in the mail, halt any direct deposits, and inform the agency of the death. Any Social Security used after someone’s death will have to be given back. “People fall into the mistake of saying that it’s Social Security’s problem, not theirs,” Smith says. “But it’s a major thing to worry about. And there are huge penalties.”
In the days and weeks after a death, relatives or friends should also go through the process of canceling credit cards, informing employers, and forwarding mail. If the deceased’s house or apartment is going to be unoccupied, turn off their utilities.
Find the will and executor
Finding the deceased’s will tells surviving family members and friends where any money, property, or belongings will go. The will will likely have to be taken to a city office to go through the process of probate—the legal execution of a will, which helps transfer property over to any heirs. Each state has different laws around the distribution of property if someone dies without a will, and courts will typically appoint a family member as an executor to deal with that process.
Transfer money and assets
Smith recommends adding children as co-signatories on bank accounts, so that they can easily access the money after a death. “If that’s an account with $3,000 in it, you might need that money for the funeral, or other things,” he says. Credit card bills will have to be paid, as will income tax on any earnings before death.
Unexpected costs that come due in the period after a death can be a shock, Shaw says. For instance, some accounts might have a “pay on death” designation, where the funds will be released with proof that the owner has passed away. That’s what the additional death certificates are for: The bank needs an original—not a copy—in order to grant access to the account. Without pay on death or a cosignatory, the account may be frozen, and have to be settled and released through probate.
Heirs also need a death certificate to access retirement plan accounts like 401(k)s and IRAs, Smith says. He also stresses the importance of checking the market value of any real estate in the name of the deceased on the day of death. When the property is inherited, it’s inherited at the value that it is on that day—and the new owner is not required to pay taxes on any increase in value. “If mom bought the house for $50,000, and today it’s worth $2 million," he says, "you don’t owe taxes on that $1.9 millon."
You don’t need an attorney to navigate the process of transferring and processing assets, but it makes things easier, Smith says, particularly if there's real estate or multiple bank accounts involved. “It can be really complicated,” he says.
Clean out the house or apartment
“One of the toughest things I’ve seen is dealing with a loved ones belongings,” Shaw says. “That’s where people get almost paralyzed.” It’s hard to throw out the last cup of coffee and the last newspaper, and harder still to go through clothing, pictures, and family heirlooms.
That's one reason most grief experts recommend not making any major decisions about what to do with a loved one’s possessions until a year has passed, Shaw says. “Every one of the anniversaries, like birthdays and holidays, can be challenging,” she says. It’s good to get through each of them once, first.
The process of managing everything from a will to online accounts can move slowly, too. Months later, emails and solicitations might arrive still addressed to the deceased. It's good to be aware that the work may drag on, Shaw says. But talking about final wishes while someone is still alive—making sure you know where a parent’s will is, or making a list of the friends and family that they would like invited to a funeral—can make things easier. “It’s something Americans don’t like to talk about,” she says, “But it’s important to prepare.”
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