Checklist: What to Do When a Loved One Dies

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Along with loss and grief, the death of a family member brings some important responsibilities to secure their estate and ensure their wishes are carried out. It's hard to handle such cut-and-dried tasks at an emotional time, so we've put together this checklist to help make those difficult days a little smoother. There is a lot to do after a loved one dies; don't try to do it all yourself. Instead, enlist friends and family to help whenever possible. They'll be glad to share the burden and lighten your load.

Take Care of Immediate Needs

  • To begin taking care of the issues surrounding a loved one's death, you'll need a legal pronouncement of death. A medical professional at the hospital, nursing home or health care facility will handle this.
    • If your loved one died at home under hospice care, call the hospice coordinator.
    • If they died at home without hospice care, call 911 and paramedics will determine the next steps for getting the legal pronouncement of death.
  • Make sure that any dependents, such as children or pets, are taken care of. While specific future arrangements may be noted in a will or trust, in the aftermath of a death, immediate safety and caretaking are the top priorities.
  • You'll need to gather important documents and records including:
    • Estate-related documents (will, trust, power of attorney, prepayment contract for funeral or cremation)
    • Identification (Social Security card or number, driver's license, passport)
    • Family records (birth certificate, marriage license, divorce papers, prenuptial agreements, military service/discharge papers)
    • Deeds or titles (real estate deeds, mortgage documents, promissory notes, vehicle titles/registrations)
    • Insurance policies (life, health, auto, disability, property and funeral insurance)
    • Financial account information (bank accounts, retirement accounts, investment/brokerage accounts, annuities, credit and debit card accounts)
    • Financial records (pension plans, veterans benefits, Social Security benefits, tax returns, income and property tax statements, loan documents)
    • Contact information (family and friends; professionals they worked with such as doctors, attorneys, accountants; location of and keys to safety deposit boxes)
    • Usernames, passwords and PINs (for online accounts, cellphones, computers and devices)
  • If your loved one made burial arrangements in advance, contact the funeral home or mortuary. If they didn't have a plan, ask a trusted friend or family member to contact funeral homes and then visit them with you.
  • Make sure your loved one's home is secure and that any valuables are in a safe place. Unfortunately, burglars sometimes target homes when they know the owner has died.
  • Contact the post office to have your family member's mail forwarded to your home or the home of the estate executor.
  • Notify family members, close friends, clergy and your loved one's employer; ask those who are notified to pass the news on to others.
  • Ask a friend or family member to write and place an obituary for your loved one if you don't feel up to the task.

Secure Their Estate

  • You'll need certified copies of your loved one's death certificate for each financial account, benefit plan, insurance policy and piece of real estate they owned, as well as for courts and government agencies.
    • You can get certified copies from the funeral home, mortuary or your state or county office of vital statistics.
    • 10 to 20 certified copies is a good number to start with; you can also order more later if you need them.
  • If your family member had life insurance, contact these companies to start the process of claiming life insurance payouts.
  • Within 30 days, you'll need to begin the process of settling the estate, which varies depending on what type of estate plans your family member left behind.
    • If your loved one had a living trust, the estate does not have to go through probate (a legal process for distributing property after someone passes away).
    • If your loved one did not have a will, or had a will but not a trust, visit your state courts' website to determine if the estate must go through probate. Laws vary from state to state.
    • If probate is required, file the appropriate documents with the court within the required time frame.
    • If your loved one had a will, the probate court will validate it and authorize the executor to pay any debts and distribute assets.
    • If your loved one did not have a will, the probate court will decide how to distribute the estate and appoint an administrator to carry out those decisions.

Contact the Necessary Sources

When you contact the following parties to inform them of your loved one's passing, they may require you to provide a certified copy of their death certificate.

  • Contact the Social Security Administration (SSA) to report your family member's death (you can also ask the funeral home to do this) and get information about survivor benefits.
  • If your loved one was a military veteran, contact the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to report their death, apply for burial or mortuary benefits, and learn about survivor benefits.
  • If your family member was receiving a pension, contact the pension provider to report their death and learn about survivor benefits or final pension payments.
  • If your loved one was employed, contact their employer to find out about final wages or other payments, any job-provided life insurance, and what happens to survivors' health insurance coverage.
  • Contact any credit card companies that your family member had accounts with to report their death. Either cancel the credit cards or transfer joint accounts into the surviving account holder's name.
  • If your loved one had an outstanding mortgage, contact the loan servicer to report their death and find out what you need to do to assume or pay off the mortgage.
  • Contact banks or financial institutions where your loved one had accounts to report their death and close their accounts or change the name in which accounts are held.
  • Contact the three major credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax) to get copies of your family member's credit report. This will give you a list of any credit accounts that have outstanding balances and may need to be paid.
  • Contact your state's motor vehicles department to report your family member's death and cancel their driver's license.
  • Cancel services and subscriptions your family member had (such as cable, magazines/newspapers, cellphone, internet and memberships).
  • Contact any service providers (such as a gardener or cleaning service) to let them know what happened and cancel service or transfer it into your name.
  • Cancel your loved one's social media accounts or turn their account into a memorial.
  • Contact email providers to close your family member's email accounts.

Understand What Happens to Their Credit and Debt

  • When you report your loved one's death to their creditors, the creditors will notify the credit bureaus the next time they send an account update. The SSA will also notify credit bureaus of your family member's death.
  • What happens to outstanding debts your loved one had? You may be responsible for their debts if:
    • You had joint credit accounts or loans with them, or cosigned on a credit account or loan with them
    • Your spouse or partner passed away and you live in a community property state (Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin) or live in Alaska and held your property in community.
  • If you are not in a community property state, you generally are not responsible for a spouse or partner's debt after they die. Instead, any debt will be paid out of their estate.
    • Laws vary from state to state, so contact your state attorney general's office or consult a lawyer familiar with estate law to determine what debts you need to pay.
    • Do not make any decisions or payments until you determine whether you are responsible for the debt; in some situations, making a payment on a debt can make you legally responsible for the entire debt.
  • Don't use your loved one's credit cards unless you are a joint account holder.

Get the Emotional Support You Need

  • Divide up the tasks on this list with family members, friends and others; don't try to handle it all yourself.
  • Consider getting counseling from a therapist or joining a local bereavement support group.
  • Seek comfort from your religious community or clergyperson; they can also recommend support groups that may help you.
  • Don't isolate yourself; reach out to friends and family for support.
  • Don't rush into any major life decisions, such as selling the family home. Wait until some time has passed and you are better able to deal with your loss.
  • Practice self-care. Eat well, get as much rest as you can, and set aside time for activities that nurture you.

See if your loved one's hospice coordinator, doctors or the funeral home can recommend bereavement resources and support groups. Other resources for helping you with your loss include: