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What to do When a Spouse or Loved One Dies

Woman is packing things of her dead husbandWhen someone you love has died, the process of getting all of the paperwork together and planning the service can be overwhelming.

  • What do you do first?
  • Who should you call?
  • Our checklist can help you with the decisions that need to be made before and after the funeral.

Before the funeral

Get a legal pronouncement of death

Getting a legal pronouncement of death is the first thing that needs to be done after a loved one dies. If they passed away in a hospital or another medical facility, a nursing home or assisted living facility, or in hospice care, a doctor or nurse will take care of this task. If they pass away in your home and aren’t in hospice, call 911, and have the deceased’s do not resuscitate order (DNR) on hand if they have one. Some areas allow paramedics to pronounce death. In this case, you usually need to contact a funeral home, mortuary, or crematorium to pick up the body from your home if there won’t be an autopsy. If your loved one needs to be transported to the hospital for a doctor to declare the death, their body can be picked up from the hospital by one of these services.

Get help from friends and family

One of the most important things you can do after a loved one dies is get help. No one should have to be alone during such an emotional time. Get someone to help you through this process. You may have to make the first few phone calls to relatives and friends, but then you should enlist those people’s help in calling others, including the Social Security Administration (SSA), Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), and your loved one’s employer. You don’t need to carry this burden alone.

Friends and family can help you with the deceased’s belongings, such as taking care of any pets they have. If you didn’t live with the loved one who died, you’ll want to get help taking care of their home (watering plants, removing valuables, throwing food out, collecting mail, etc.).

These things may seem unimportant, but if someone doesn’t take care of them, they can become a problem later on.

Get help from professionals

Along with the friends and family members of your loved one, reaching out to professionals to help you with some of the more complicated tasks you’ll face, like settling the deceased’s estate, will provide you with a huge amount of support. Before the funeral, contact any of these individuals your loved one worked with prior to their passing to ensure these important tasks are addressed immediately.

  • Your loved one’s burial or funeral insurance agent will help you access death benefits from their final expense life insurance policy.
  • The insurance agent that helped them obtain a whole or term life insurance policy will work on providing you or the deceased’s spouse the funds you’re owed.
  • Their financial advisor, financial planner, or personal banker will begin taking steps to free up the funds you’ll need to pay their final bills and estate taxes and fees.
  • The certified public account (CPA) they worked with will round up the tax documents you’ll need to settle your loved one’s estate. This specialist can also help you when it’s time to file your loved one’s final tax return and estate return.
  • The attorney who prepared their will, trust, and other end-of-life documents will provide you the legal records you will need throughout the funeral-planning process and estate settlement, including the letter of testamentary. If you aren’t the executor of their estate or the trustee of their will, the legal professional who drafted them will contact these individuals.
  • If you’re the spouse, partner, or next of kin of a loved one who died without a will, contact your local probate court to get a letter of administration or letter of representation, which you’ll need to settle their estate.

Gather all important documents

Over the next several weeks, you’ll need to send copies of various documents to a variety of people in order to start making your loved one’s final arrangements. The professionals you contacted following your loved one’s death can provide many of these records to the spouse or next of kin, which include:

  • Information in a safe deposit box or safe – This might include birth certificates, marriage or divorce certificates, military discharge papers, a will, property deeds, vehicle titles, financial or retirement account records, IRS returns, and other legal documents and insurance policies. If you don’t know whether one exists, contact the bank of the deceased.
  • The death certificate – This document will be used the most. Make sure you get multiple copies and keep them somewhere safe. In the coming days, you’ll need these as you contact creditors, banks, government agencies, and insurance companies.
  • The probate or will – If you don’t know whether one exists, ask other family members. If your loved one had a lawyer, he or she can let you know about any important documents.
  • Any life insurance policies – You’ll want to contact the insurance company as soon as possible so they can start their claim process. Depending on the provider, it could take weeks for you to get the death benefit from the policy. You may need to fill out additional paperwork to allow them to order the deceased’s medical records.
  • Record of military service – This is important if you desire a military component in the funeral. Military Funeral Honors are a free benefit to any veteran (except in the instance of a dishonorable discharge). This can include an honor guard, the folding and presenting of an American flag, and the playing of “Taps.” Learn more about funeral planning for veterans.A record of service is also important in order to claim any benefits for the surviving spouse. Depending on the circumstances of a veteran’s death, benefits can include a pension, insurance, home loans or housing assistance, health care, employment services, and more. Check the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website for more information.


Honor their existing funeral, burial, or cremation plans and other final wishes

Many people pre-plan their funeral and burial or cremation, and it will bring peace to you and your loved one’s other family and friends to honor their plans. If they had a burial insurance policy, contact their insurance agent or life insurance company to learn about the final arrangements they made. Their spouse or the attorney who prepared their will can also tell you about any pre-arrangements they made.

You’ll also want to honor your loved one’s other final wishes, which may include things like whether they’re an organ donor, how they want their belongings dispersed, where they want their ashes scattered, and even what music they want played at their funeral. If you’re unsure about what your loved one’s final wishes are, check with other family members or close friends or the lawyer that prepared their end-of-life documents.

Set a budget for the funeral service

Ideally, your loved one purchased a final expense insurance policy, which will help pay funeral costs and will sometimes cover all of their final arrangements. If you’ll be paying any of these costs out of pocket, setting an overall budget is one of the best ways you can manage the high costs of funerals. This may seem difficult during a time of grief, but no one – especially a loved one who has died – would want you to believe that bigger and more expensive is better.

The average cost of a funeral can be $9,000 or more. Caskets cost an average of $2,000 to $5,000 alone. Cremation containers can also be a significant expense, since urns cost as much as $2,250. These prices don’t include items like flowers, obituary notices, transportation costs, or burial markers.

It’s important to set your budget before choosing a funeral home. Not all funeral homes will operate with your best interest in mind. For example, most funeral homes only showcase their most expensive caskets. But most of the time they have less expensive caskets available. They can even use caskets bought from third-party distributors. Buying outside of the funeral home can save you hundreds – or thousands – of dollars.

Choose a funeral home

If you already have a funeral home selected, call and tell them that your loved one has died. They will help you set up an appointment to make the necessary arrangements. If you don’t have a funeral home in mind, ask a friend or relative for recommendations. If you have a church, your clergy may also be able to make suggestions for you.

When selecting a funeral home, it’s important to spend time researching your options. Costs will vary from one funeral home to another depending on the services provided. Funeral homes can give you pricing information over the phone, making the research a lot easier.

Planning the funeral

Decide on arrangements

Making arrangements at the funeral home can be the most overwhelming responsibility of all if you don’t know your loved one’s final wishes. Some of the main decisions you’ll be making include:

  • Whether your loved one will be cremated or buried
  • Whether there will be a viewing or visitation
  • How the funeral service will be conducted
  • Whether there will be a procession to a cemetery

In addition, you’ll make arrangements for flowers, transportation, music, and often, a reception afterward. In all cases, having a close relative or friend help you with the decisions can make the process a lot easier.

Write the obituary

Obituaries include basic facts about the deceased’s life and are often written by family members or close friends. The obituary can be handed out at the service, printed in a newspaper, or posted online.

After the funeral

Some important things that need to be done after the funeral include:

  • Start making plans for how to handle your loved one’s estate. It’s helpful to work with an attorney to settle estates worth over $50,000. This can be a long and complicated process, because it involves taking an inventory of and distributing a loved one’s financial and physical assets, paying their outstanding debt, and executing the will in court.
  • Cancel (or transfer into your name or estate) any credit cards, gym memberships, bank accounts, utility service accounts, and cell phone accounts.
  • Stop any deliveries such as newspapers, home-meal services, and nurse visits.
  • Go to the post office to stop or forward mail.
  • Collect the special lump-sum death payment from the federal government. Generally, the lump-sum is paid to the surviving spouse (or child if there’s no eligible spouse).
  • If you are the spouse of the deceased, apply for any benefits you are eligible for such as pension benefits, any company-related benefits, and any government benefits.
  • Cancel their email accounts.
  • Delete their social media accounts on sites like Facebook and Instagram, or update them to be memorial pages.

Losing a loved one is overwhelming, especially if it happens suddenly. There are literally hundreds of decisions that need to be made, all in a very short period of time.

Families are often left unprepared to handle all of the logistics of handling the deceased’s estate and planning the funeral. Most importantly, they aren’t prepared for how much the funeral will cost.

Funeral costs have been rising steadily over the last decade. Without the proper guidance, families can emotionally overspend by hundreds or thousands of dollars.