What To Do When Your Loved One Dies: A Step by Step Guide

Haley Burress

When a loved one passes away, whether suddenly or not, you don’t always have time to sit in your grief. Instead, you might find yourself suddenly in the midst of funeral home decisions, getting a death certificate, or choosing a cemetery plot with other family members.

There is a lot to do when a loved one dies, and it can quickly become overwhelming without a step-by-step checklist to get you through the process.

Here is what you need to know about the steps to take after a loved one dies. Remember, you and your family members do not have to take on these tasks. Some you can delegate to close friends or trusted professionals as you navigate this difficult time.

6 Steps To Follow After Your Loved One Passes Away

1. Obtain A Death Certificate

Before you can obtain a death certificate, you must get a legal pronouncement of death. The declaration of death legally states the person has died and you will need this paperwork in order to begin planning a funeral, obtaining an official death certificate, and closing out your loved one’s estate.

Of course, immediately asking for an official declaration of death is not the first thing you will be thinking of after your loved one dies, and that is okay. If your loved one passes away in a hospital, senior living community, or hospice care, the team will take care of that task. If your loved one passes away at home without medical professionals there, you will need to call 9-1-1 in order for first responders to declare the death and then take them to the funeral home of your choice. 

It takes about 1-3 weeks for a death certificate to be officially processed, depending on the state you live in and the speed of their governmental agencies. Plan on securing at least 10 certified copies of a death certificate, as you, or the designated executor of the will, need the official copy in order to close out bank accounts, credit card accounts, etc.

While you are requesting certified copies from government agencies, consider getting a few copies of your loved one’s birth certificate as well. You might need this documentation moving forward.

2. Let Others Know About Your Loved One's Passing

Immediately after your loved one dies, you will want to communicate that with close family and friends.

Keep in mind that you don’t need to jump on social media or send out a mass email to acquaintances about the death in those first few hours or days. You may want to make a more broad announcement a few days later when you can also give out funeral arrangements.

If you don’t want to send out the notification text, delegate another family member or friend to take care of the communication on your behalf.

Other communication you can take care of, or delegate to someone else, include:

  • Writing and submitting the obituary

    • Sending notifications about where guests can send flowers or donate money on behalf of the person who passed away

    • Planning the readings or passages to be read during funeral services

    • Notifying the deceased’s workplace, if applicable

    • Keeping family and friends notified about funeral plans or the memorial service online via social media or email

    • Writing thank-you notes or keeping a list of people to write thank-you notes to after the funeral service

    • Speaking with important groups, such as a church fellowship group or Veterans group, if applicable

3. Plan the Funeral and Burial Services

If your loved one already had their preferences laid out, planning the funeral, burial, or cremation will consist of making those plans become a reality. Work with the funeral home staff to see if there were any pre-payments or pre-selections made as a part of the estate planning process, which will decrease the choices you have to make or fees you need to pay. 

The funeral director will be there to make the process as easy as possible for you and your family members. They will help you remember to consider funeral arrangements like:

  • Selecting pallbearers

    • Choosing readings or passages for the service

    • Pulling together photos for a slide show or memorial poster

    • Publishing the obituary

    • How to provide notifications to the community about the services

    • Refreshments for the wake and services

    • Connecting with a local restaurant or catering company for any event after the burial

4. Take Care Of Your Loved One's Property

Immediately following the death of a loved one, you should take care of the person’s home or property to ensure safety for anyone or anything still living in the home.

For example, make arrangements for someone to take care of any pets, clear out any food in the refrigerator or cabinets that will go bad in the next few weeks or months, and pick up their mail. Doing these tasks will allow you to take some time before you need to make more permanent decisions about the property and any other real estate.

Once you are ready, and after the probate period is complete, you can begin taking care of property needs such as:

  • Go to the post office to stop all mail, or choose to forward mail to your address instead. Remember to bring along copies of the death certificate as they might be needed. Stopping all mail will prevent any potential identity theft and will help you go through the mail in order to begin closing down your loved one’s bank account, credit cards, or other accounts through various financial institutions.

    • Locate the person’s will and other estate planning documents. Hopefully, you or the designated Power of Attorney will know right where to find it so you can take it to a lawyer as needed and begin executing their decisions. If you don’t know where to find it, contact their lawyer.

    • You’ll want to close out any bank accounts when allowed, including removing any valuables from a safe deposit box, if applicable.

    • Contact an accountant so that they can file any final tax return on the deceased’s behalf.

    • Cancel any recurring bills, like WiFi, subscriptions to streaming services, or other bills.

    • Keep track of any bills that you cannot cancel, such as a mortgage or homeowner insurance. You can forward this information to the estate’s executor, Financial Power of Attorney, or accountant.

5. Contact Your Local SSA office & Life Insurance Company

In order to stop payments from the Social Security Administration, you will need an official copy of the person’s death certificate. Contact your local SSA office in order to notify them of the death. While many funeral homes take care of this task, it is best for you to ensure it happens by adding it to your to-do list.

If your loved one had life insurance policies, you will need to find the policy and contact the company to inform them of the death. This is the first step in getting payments to beneficiaries and dependents. Again, you will need an official copy of the death certificate in order to do so. Keep in mind that your loved one may have worked with multiple life insurance companies, so you might have to go through this process a few times.

6. Consider Notifying A Few More Agencies

Finally, notify these agencies, if applicable, of your loved one’s death. Doing so in a timely manner, no more than six months after the death, will help to prevent identity theft and any extra expenses:

  • DMV
    Cancel your loved one’s Driver’s License through your local office. Keep a copy of the cancellation for your records.

    • Credit Card Companies
      Cancel all credit cards and shred any cards. Keep a copy of the cancellation information for your records.

    • Health Care Insurance
      This includes Medicare, long-term care insurance, car insurance, and other applicable insurance companies.
      Use a copy of the death certificate to expedite the process.

    • Email Accounts & Other Digital accounts
      This can feel frustrating at times especially if the website doesn’t have a quick FAQ to help you get it done efficiently. Stick with it, as the risk of digital identity theft increases after death.

Finally, consider running a credit report on your loved one a few months after their death and then again around the year anniversary of their death. This will help you notice any identity theft immediately so that you can take care of it quickly.

Remember To Delegate Tasks & Ask For Help

It can be difficult navigating the many tasks and chores that can come after a loved one’s death. Remember to delegate and ask for help. You are not alone.

See if you can bring a friend along for the visit to the social security office or to the lawyer’s office to review the deceased’s estate planning documents. You will find that family and friends are more than willing to help with large and small tasks to help get you through this difficult time.