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Checklist for What to do When Someone Dies & Who to Call

Losing a loved one is never easy, but losing your husband or wife is one of the most devastating experiences you’ll ever go through. In addition to saying goodbye to your life partner, there are many things you need to do when your spouse dies. Our checklists explain what you need to do, who you need to call, and which documents you need when your spouse dies.

Note that while this guide explains what to do when a spouse dies, this advice is also helpful for anyone whose loved one has passed away.

FUNERAL ADVANTAGE PROGRAM SAVES FAMILIES MONEY

Priority Checklists for What to Do When a Spouse Dies

There are many tasks that need to be taken care of after someone dies, and unfortunately, many of them usually fall on the surviving spouse. Our checklists explain what you need to do in the days, weeks, and months after your husband or wife passes away.

Immediately After

Here is what to do immediately after your spouse dies:

  • Get a legal pronouncement of death. If your partner dies in a hospital, a nursing home, an assisted living facility, or hospice, a doctor or nurse will declare a time of death. If they passed away at home while not under the care of a medical professional, call 911. If they have one, have your spouse’s do not resuscitate order (DNR) ready to show the paramedics. Depending on where you live, the paramedic will pronounce the death or your loved one will be transported to a hospital for a doctor or nurse to make the declaration.
  • If a paramedic pronounced the death and there won’t be an autopsy, call the funeral home, crematorium, or mortuary you plan to work with. They’ll pick up the body and transport it to their facility.
  • If your spouse died in the hospital or in a care facility, or if they were transported to the hospital for a doctor to declare the death, contact the funeral home or other service provider to move the body to their facility. A specialist at the hospital or nursing home can usually help you with this step.
  • If your spouse is an organ donor and they passed away at home not under the care of a physician, call a local hospital to take care of this process. If they died under the care of a hospice nurse or paramedic, they should be able to connect you with the appropriate authority for organ donation. The funeral home may also be able to help you coordinate this.

Within a Few Days

Here is what you need to do within a few days of the death of your spouse:

  • Tell your family members and friends your spouse has died. Start with those who were closest to you and your husband or wife. They can help you let others know so you don’t have to take on this task by yourself. They’ll also be able to help you with other things you’ll need to do in the coming days and weeks, including making funeral arrangements. If you plan on making an announcement on social media, wait a few days so you can personally contact as many people as possible.
  • Contact the Social Security Administration (SSA). Although funeral providers typically do this, you should still contact your local SSA to verify this task gets done. Reporting your spouse’s death to the SSA will end any government benefits they received, and if you receive any of these funds after your partner’s passing, you’ll have to pay them back. However, you may be eligible to receive a death benefit of $255.
  • If your spouse was an active or retired military member, contact the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). In addition to canceling payments to your loved one, you’ll receive the funeral and burial benefits for veterans who were active or honorably discharged.
  • If your husband or wife was working, notify their employer of their passing. They’ll give you information on any final paychecks you’ll receive on their behalf as well as life insurance, pensions, and other benefits they’re eligible for through the company. Also contact their labor union to see if they qualify for any benefits.
  • Call your employer to notify them of your partner’s death. You should take time to grieve and make final arrangements.
  • If you have school-aged children, contact their school. The administration and teachers can arrange for their assignments to be postponed or even canceled. They may also be able to provide your children grief-counseling resources when they return.
  • Start making final arrangements. Since you’ve already contacted the funeral home, mortuary, or crematorium you’ll be working with, you can start to plan funeral service arrangements. If your spouse pre-planned their funeral and had a pre-paid funeral plan, the home will take care of the details per the instructions your husband or wife gave them. If you don’t know what your loved one’s final wishes were, look to their will or other end-of-life documents for this information. If there were no formal plans, work with your close family members to plan services that will bring you all comfort and peace.
  • Call their life insurance providers to start the claim process. It can take days or even weeks for you to receive insurance payouts, and since these funds can help pay for funeral expenses, it’s best to start the process as early as possible. Plus, you won’t have to keep paying the premiums. Depending on their coverage, you may need to contact a few providers to make claims for different policies, including:
  • Write an obituary. If you don’t want to write one yourself, ask close family members to help you.

Within 10 Days

Here is what you should do within about 10 days after your spouse dies:

  • Locate their will. The will discloses who the executor (sometimes called the administrator) of your partner’s estate is. Many times, spouses are named the executor, but you’ll need this certified in writing in order to settle the estate. The will also lays out how your loved one wanted the funds, property, and belongings they solely owned to be dispersed.Keep in mind that most assets and debt are jointly owned by married couples, so when one dies, the survivor receives all of the assets they owned together and is responsible for paying off their shared debt. However, it’s still standard for there to be a will to disperse property left behind that wasn’t jointly owned. Even though solely-owned property and funds are usually left to the surviving spouse, you’ll need your loved one’s will for proof in case someone challenges your right to it.If there is no will, you’ll need to go to probate court so a judge can name an administrator of the estate through letters testamentary, which will likely be you. If you can’t find the will at home, check to see if it’s stored in a safe or bank safe deposit box, or ask their lawyer for a copy.
  • Get at least 10 copies of the death certificate. You’ll need these to notify multiple entities of your partner’s passing, and while some institutions accept copies, many require an original.
  • Consult an estate attorney. It’s possible to settle your spouse’s estate without a lawyer, but because this can sometimes turn into a complicated situation and involve many beneficiaries, it’s best to work with a specialist, especially if their estate is valued at $50,000 or more.
  • Contact the executor of your spouse’s estate. Husbands and wives are usually named executors of their partner’s estate, but if you’re not, you’ll need to contact the person who is in order to help distribute their assets as laid out in their will. Your estate attorney can begin this process for you and guide you through it.
  • Contact your certified public accountant (CPA). Your filing status likely won’t change the first year you file after a spouse’s passing. Many widows and widowers file joint tax returns the year their husband or wife dies, so there may not be an immediate need to call your CPA. However, it can be helpful to give them a call within a few weeks of your partner’s passing, since they likely have financial documents that may help you make insurance and benefits claims. They can also help you with immediate and future financial planning, such as how to qualify for additional deductions on your next tax return, how to pay off your spouse’s outstanding debts, and what to expect on future tax filings.

In the Months After

Unfortunately, it may take months for you to take care of everything that needs to be done after your husband or wife dies, so try to be patient. The good news is that there are some things you can hold off on for a few months, and in some cases, it’s actually better to wait a while. For example, keeping your loved one’s email account active until you’ve received all of the death benefits you’re entitled to will make it easier to request and receive the records you need to make claims.

When you’re ready, here is what you need to do in the months after your spouse dies:

  • Update your will to include a living heir.
  • Close their email accounts.
  • Close their social media accounts, or turn them into memorial pages.
  • Cancel their subscriptions that you have no use for.
  • Remove them as the co-owner and beneficiary of your financial accounts. You may wish to be the sole owner or add a new joint owner, such as an adult child.
  • Cancel insurance policies solely in your partner’s name, and remove them from joint policies.
  • Remove them from property deeds, such as your home and car.
  • Notify your local election office of their death.
  • If you have children attending a college or university, contact their schools’ financial aid offices. Your kids may qualify for financial support, even if they weren’t eligible for any before your spouse died. If they have any student loans, also contact those financial institutions; they may reduce or forgive the debt. Lastly, be sure your children’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is filled out for the following school year. Again, even if your kids didn’t qualify for student aid prior to your partner’s passing, they may be eligible now that your financial picture has changed.
  • If you don’t already have one, consider working with a financial planner. This is an especially important step if your spouse’s death will have a major impact on your finances due to lost income from their job or work-related benefits they received. A financial professional will help you create a new daily living budget and make recommendations on how to trim your cost of living and save for the future.

Reach out for help if you’re having trouble coping with your grief. Even when we’re surrounded by friends and family immediately after the death of a loved one, they all have to go back to their daily lives at some point, leaving many people feeling isolated in their despair. This can be even harder on spouses who’ve lost their husband or wife. If you think you need help working through your grief, reach out to your loved ones to ask for their support. Many people also find it helpful to join a grief support group or work with a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist. Coping with the loss of your spouse will be one of the hardest parts of their death, but you don’t have to go through it alone.

Documents You Need When a Spouse Dies

In order to take care of everything you’ll need to get done in the days, weeks, and months after your spouse dies, you’ll need a variety of documents. If you’re not sure where any of these are, check with your lawyer, CPA, family members, and friends to see if they have them. If you’re still missing some after checking with these individuals, search your loved one’s file cabinets, personal safe, and bank safe deposit box. In a worst-case scenario, you may need to contact legal or business entities, such as the city clerk for a marriage license or a doctor’s office for medical records.

These are the documents you’ll need after your spouse dies:

  • Birth certificate
  • Death certificate
  • Will
  • Marriage certificate
  • Financial account records, including checkings and savings accounts, retirement accounts, pension accounts, loan accounts, and investment accounts like trusts
  • Real estate records, including deeds and lease agreements
  • Other real property deeds, including for cars, boats, and RVs
  • Recent credit reports from all three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) that list outstanding debts
  • Military service records and discharge papers
  • The last three years of tax returns
  • Medical records

What to do When a Spouse Dies at Home

If your spouse dies at home:

  • If there is no doctor, nurse, or qualified medical professional present, call 911 to get a legal pronouncement of death, making sure you have their DNR for the paramedics. Your loved one may be taken to the hospital for the declaration of death to be made.
  • Contact a funeral home, mortuary, or crematorium to pick up your loved one’s body from your home or the hospital.*

Once you’ve taken these actions, use our above checklists to take care of the other things you’ll need to do after the death of your loved one.

*Note: Some funeral homes offer their services 24 hours a day, but others only operate during normal business hours. If your service provider won’t pick up your loved one’s body during off-hours, the ambulance will need to take it to the morgue so it can be picked up the following morning.

What to do When a Spouse Dies at Night

If your spouse dies at night:

  • Unless they are in hospice or have a full-time caregiver, call 911. They will send a paramedic to give you a legal death pronouncement or to transport your partner to the hospital so a nurse or doctor can provide one.
  • Contact your funeral services provider to pick up the body from your home or the hospital and move it to their facility.*

From here, follow the checklists above to handle the remaining tasks that need to be done.

*Note: Some funeral homes offer their services 24 hours a day, but others only operate during normal business hours. If your service provider won’t pick up your loved one’s body during off-hours, the ambulance will need to take it to the morgue so it can be picked up the following morning.

Who do You Call When a Spouse Dies of Natural Causes or in Their Sleep?

If your partner dies of natural causes or in their sleep:

  • If there is no medical professional with you, call 911. This will start the process of getting a legal death pronouncement, whether it’s given in your home by a paramedic or at the hospital by a doctor or nurse.
  • Call your funeral services provider. They will arrange for the body to be transported to their facility.*

Next, use the checklists at the beginning of this guide to take care of the other items you’ll need to handle.

*Note: Some funeral homes offer their services 24 hours a day, but others only operate during normal business hours. If your service provider won’t pick up your loved one’s body during off-hours, the ambulance will need to take it to the morgue so it can be picked up the following morning.

Who to Call When a Spouse Dies

In addition to calling 911 and your funeral service provider after your spouse passes away, you’ll need to contact others about the death of your loved one.

Family Members, Friends, and Other Personal Contacts to Call When a Spouse Dies

  • Your closest family members. Your children, parents and parents-in-law, siblings and siblings-in-law, and other close relatives should be among the first people you call. They can help you contact other loved ones along with the professionals and agencies you’ll be working with to make final arrangements and settle the estate.
  • Your spouse’s employer.
  • Your employer.
  • Your children’s teachers and school administration.

Service Providers to Call When a Spouse Dies

  • The funeral planner.
  • Your spouse’s life insurance providers, including their burial insurance policy holder.
  • The HR departments of your spouse’s former employers. They may qualify for life insurance coverage or a pension through companies they previously worked for.
  • Your estate attorney.
  • Your CPA.
  • Personal finance professionals you work with as well as financial institutions where your spouse had accounts. Account types you’ll need to update include checkings and savings, credit cards, investments like 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts (IRAs), and loans such as mortgages and auto loans.
  • Utility companies where your spouse is the account holder.
  • Companies your spouse had subscriptions to.

Government Agencies to Call When a Spouse Dies

  • The Social Security Administration (SSA). This will stop any Medicare, Medicaid, and other government benefit payments your spouse received.
  • The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Notifying the DMV that your loved one has passed away helps prevent identity theft by removing your loved one’s name from the agency’s records so that no more mail is sent to them.
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The SSA will communicate the death to the VA once you report it. However, to receive life insurance and death benefits your loved one was eligible for through their military service as quickly as possible, you should contact the VA directly.

What to do When a Spouse Dies Without a Will

If your husband or wife died without a will, you’ll need to go to probate court within a couple of weeks after their death. Since there is no will, there is no designated agent to settle their affairs. A probate court judge will name an individual to be responsible for these duties, called an administrator, which is often the spouse.

Because settling an estate through probate court can be more complicated than doing so with a will where their beneficiaries and final wishes are clearly stated, it’s a good idea to work with an estate attorney for this process. Probate can take years to be finalized, so try your best to find an existing will before pursuing this process.

FUNERAL ADVANTAGE PROGRAM SAVES FAMILIES MONEY

State Specific Recommendations & Checklists

Below are some state-specific resource guides on what to do if your spouse dies. We’ve explained above that in most states, real and financial property are generally left to the surviving spouse when someone dies. However, if you live in a community property state, surviving spouses may be held responsible for the debts their partner leaves behind, even if they weren't a joint owner or co-signer of an account. We’ve noted which states on this list have community property laws. Of course, every state’s rules are unique, so work with your estate lawyer to make sure you correctly settle your loved one’s affairs.

FAQs

How can I find out how much a funeral costs in my area?

Most funerals cost between $7,000 and $12,000. The exact price you’ll pay is based on factors like whether you choose burial or cremation, the casket or urn you select, and the memorial service you hold. The best way to find out how much a funeral costs where you live is to contact a few funeral homes in your area and ask for a General Price List (GPL), which is a breakdown of all of the costs of their products and services. That way, you can choose the one that works best with your budget.

How do I find life insurance benefits?

If you need to find out if your spouse had life insurance benefits, or if you know they did and need to find the policy, there are a few things you can do:

  • Look through their personal belongings. You may find a policy record in a desk, filing cabinet, personal safe, or bank safe deposit box. Along with a life insurance document, look for business cards for insurance agents, financial specialists, accountants, and lawyers who may have the information you need.
  • Talk to your family members as well as your partner’s friends, accountant, attorney, financial advisor, and spiritual leader to see if they know of an existing policy and where you can find documentation on it.
  • Check their mail and email for information on their benefits.
  • Look at bank statements for payments to life insurance companies.
  • Check address books and personal planners for contact information on insurance agents.
  • Contact their current and past employers. Many companies provide free or low-cost life insurance plans to their staff, and some policies stay in effect even after employment ends.
  • Reach out to labor unions and other member organizations they belonged to. These groups sometimes offer life insurance as a member benefit.
  • Search online using an unclaimed benefits website. Some of the most popular websites for finding unclaimed financial assets are the National Association of Insurance Commissioners - Life Insurance Policy Locator, MissingMoney.com, and the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators - Unclaimed.org.
  • Call your state Insurance Commissioner. If all else fails, contacting this official’s office will prompt them to reach out to licensed insurance agencies in your state so they can confirm if your partner held a policy with them. If they did, the agency will contact all named beneficiaries and tell them how to file a claim.

What if I don't know what my spouse's final wishes are?

If you never had a conversation with your partner about their final wishes, check their will. Wills usually contain information about whether someone wants to be buried or cremated, what kind of funeral service they’d like, and how they want their assets distributed to loved ones or charitable organizations. If they didn’t write a will, ask close family members if your spouse ever had a discussion with them about their final wishes. An attorney who helped them prepare other end-of-life documents, such as a power of attorney (POA), trust, or DNR, may also have a document with this information.

If you still can’t find what your spouse’s final wishes are after checking these resources, these decisions will be up to you or the executor of their estate. If you need support with any part of this process, reach out to close loved ones for their help in making final arrangements and giving away belongings you want passed down to others.

What do I do if my spouse dies without a will?

If your spouse dies without a will, you’ll need to go to probate court so a judge can name an administrator who will be responsible for settling their estate. In most cases, the surviving spouse is given this responsibility. You’ll need to go to probate court within about two weeks of their passing.

What to do with Social Security when a spouse dies

Call the SSA to notify them of the death. Any Social Security payments will be stopped, but as the surviving spouse, you may receive a $255 death benefit.

FUNERAL ADVANTAGE PROGRAM SAVES FAMILIES MONEY

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