A Practical Guide to Managing the Death of a Loved One
The time following the death of a loved one can be overwhelming. Not only are you dealing with shock and bereavement, but there are a seemingly endless number of tasks and decisions which need to be made. Within the first twenty four hours, you need to deal with making arrangements for the body, and notifying the proper people. The immediate days following the death will be focused on the funeral or memorial service arrangements. Soon after the funeral you will need to tackle various financial and legal issues that come with dealing with the estate. Many people find it very difficult to be sure they have taken care of everything. Although we cannot do these difficult tasks for you, the following can help walk you through the decisions that will need to be made and the things that must be done.
If the Death Occurs in the Hospital
Hospitals and nursing homes are very experienced with death, and should be able to handle most of the details for you, so that you can focus on taking care of yourself and your family. The doctors will pronounce the death and take care of the details of making arrangements for the body. Things you should consider are which funeral home you would like them to contact, whether or not organ donation is appropriate, and if an autopsy is desired. Autopsies usually cost money and can cause the family more grief than closure. You should consider an autopsy:
- If the person died from a medical problem that was not diagnosed before death.
- You have questions about an unexpected death.
- Your loved one died from an inherited disease and you or other family members may be at risk.
- You believe there may have been medical malpractice.
- The cause of death may affect legal matters.
- You have doubts about the diagnosis made before death.
If the Death Occurs at Home
Almost everyone wants to die at an old age, in their own home, in their sleep. Unfortunately no one wants to be the one to find them once they have. Most people who pass away outside of the hospital are found by a loved one. Many times amidst the shock and grief the finder does not know who to call or what to do.
If a person dies unexpectedly at home or at work, first call 911 or the emergency phone number in your area. They will send out the police and an ambulance. The police will hold an investigation, and the paramedics can pronounce the death.
If the death was expected due to old age or terminal illness, and signs of death have clearly set in, the best bet would be to call the Police, not 911. By calling 911 an ambulance will be sent, and this can be an unnecessary expense and delay the ambulance from helping someone in danger. The police can arrange for the coroner to come out to the house. In all cases, a medical professional must pronounce the death so you will need either a doctor or a coroner. If there is any doubt the person may not be dead, call 911 immediately and attempt CPR. If the person was under the care of a hospice program, call the hospice organization instead of 911 or the police.
Finding a loved one dead is a very traumatic experience. Call someone you trust to come and sit with you while you wait, to watch you for signs of shock and help answer any questions the police or paramedics might have.
Within the First 24 Hours
Upon the passing of a loved one, the first 24 hours usually feel like a blur. Time seems to stop and go very quickly at the same time. Most things can wait while you deal with your shock. However a few practical things need to be done.
- Make short term arrangements for the decedent’s minor children, pets, or other dependents.
- Arrange for care or disposal of perishable property (food, plants, etc.).
- Secure decedent’s property from theft and vandalism.
- Have the post office change the decedent’s address, or hold mail.
There are several people you will need to notify. The first person you should call is someone to be with you during this difficult time. This person can also help you by calling people for you or helping you write the obituary. There are many people who should be notified, and many different ways to do so. Make sure you do the following:
- Notify immediate family and close friends. You may want to have someone else do this.
- Prepare an obituary and purchase a space in the newspaper where the decedent lived. If the decedent spent a significant time in another area, you may want to take one out there as well.
- Notify the decedent’s work, and social groups.
- Don’t forget to notify electronic contacts, such as people connected through email or facebook.
There is a lot of planning that goes into funerals, and it happens very quickly at the most stressful time possible. The first thing you should do is see if the decedent prearranged a funeral or had specific final wishes. You should contact the Funeral Home and make an appointment within the first 24 hours. Make sure to keep records of all payments for funeral and other expenses. Arrange for a house sitter during the funeral and calling hours to prevent break-ins from people who read obituaries to prey on the bereaved. The funeral home will order certificates of death from the state department. Make sure to order at least 3 copies.
The funeral home will ask you to make a lot of decisions. Do not worry about making the “wrong” decision. Ask a trusted friend or family member to go with you to the mortuary to advise and support you in making the funeral and burial arrangements. If the deceased did not make arrangements in life you will have to make the following decisions:
- Whether the person should be cremated or buried.
- What clothing & jewelry the deceased should wear.
- If the burial will be in a cemetery plot, vault, or mausoleum.
- Selection of the urn or casket.
- Will the casket be opened or closed.
- Where and when calling hours will be.
- Some Fraternal Orders and the Military may offer special ceremonies.
- If there is family tension, the funeral director should be aware of the relationships of people attending to seat them appropriately.
- What flower arrangements and pictures or photo albums to be displayed.
- Who will give eulogies, and serve as pall bearers.
- What music will be played and what prayers will be read.
- Make arrangements for grave site transportation.
- Selection of the grave marker.
- If there will be a wake or other gathering to celebrate the life of the deceased.
- Catering concerns.
- How to accommodate out of town relatives.
After the Funeral
The days before the funeral you should not worry about the estate or finances. Focus exclusively on taking care of yourself and your loved ones and allow yourself to grieve. It is important to take care of yourself emotionally and physically. Even though it seems trivial and difficult to do in such times, make sure you allow yourself time to sleep, exercise, eat, and for personal hygiene. If possible, don’t make any life changing decisions, such as to move or change jobs, for at least a year. Counseling and support are available for the spouse, children, close relatives and friends of the decedent. Make sure to plan ahead for events that tend to retrigger grief, such as holidays or birthdays.
While your loss will be felt long after the funeral is over, within the first few weeks you need to start dealing with the decedent’s estate. Be careful before accepting any telephone or mail solicitation. Be especially wary of overly pushy solicitors who pressure you to make decisions immediately or pay fees. Fraudulent invoices may be received and should be scrutinized carefully for validity.
Contact Social Security and any other government agencies, retirement plans, or benefit programs to let them know the person has passed. Notify life insurance companies and annuity companies of the death and request claim forms. If a mortgage life insurance policy on the home exists, notify the mortgage holder and insurance company of the death.
You should collect and organize all the bills and debts of the decedent. Close all electronic accounts, if the client shopped online or had their bills paid electronically. Cancel all services that are no longer needed, such as cable, internet, and cell phone. Watch for utility bills, such as heating bills for the house. These will need to be paid to keep up the house until you can sell or transfer it. Notify credit card companies of the death and cancel credit cards on which decedent was the only signer. Do not pay any of decedent’s debts until you have consulted your attorney.
See if the decedent had a Will or Trust. The original will is usually kept in a safe deposit box, in the attorney’s office, or in a file at home. It is also possible the will was filed, during the decedent’s lifetime, with the court for safekeeping. Try to find the original signed document if possible. If more than one will is found, keep them all. Do not write on the original will.
When you are ready, call an estate attorney. She can help you manage the estate administration and determine if an estate tax return or final income tax return should be filed. You do not need to contact the same attorney who wrote the will. Choose an attorney you trust and feel comfortable with. Dealing with the details following the death of a loved one can be overwhelming, but you don’t have to do it alone.
Kyla A. Williger
Attorney at Law