The death of a loved one is an extremely difficult thing to experience. Although most of us will go through the grief that comes from this loss, few of us are prepared to handle all of the logistics, especially if your loved one did not have important documents such as a Will or Trust.
This is especially concerning, since less than half of Americans have these documents. According to a survey by Caring.com, “only 42 percent of U.S. adults currently have estate planning documents such as a Will or Living Trust. For those with children under the age of 18, the figure is even lower, with just 36 percent having an end-of-life plan in place.”
Since a Will or Trust are the only documents that allow a parent to legally assign a guardian for their minor children, these statistics are very alarming. For those 64 percent of parents with minor children who don’t have these documents, the courts would decide who would care for their children if they became incapacitated or passed away.
Whether you’re an elderly grandfather of twelve putting your affairs in order in case you pass away, or a young mom with two kids, it’s important to have a Will. Any person 18 years of age and older should also have documents like a Health Care Proxy and Power of Attorney to protect your wishes while you’re alive.
However, we’ll get into those documents and how a death of a loved one affects their power and function later in this guide.
- What to Expect When Someone Passes Away
- How to Cope with the Loss of a Loved One
- Legal and Logistical Steps After Death
- Checklist of Things to Do Right After Someone Dies
- How to Deliver News That Someone Has Died
- Checklist of Things to Do Within Two Weeks of Someone’s Death
- What Happens to a Will When Someone Dies
- Common Services to Cancel When a Loved One Dies
What to Expect When Someone Passes Away
Not everyone dies in the presence of others, and sadly, it’s even less common for someone to pass away surrounded by their loved ones. However, if they do, it can be difficult for their surviving loved ones to know what to do, especially if they passed away at home and without healthcare professionals to direct what’s next.
Whether your loved one passes away in a facility (such as a hospital, nursing home, or assisted living) or at home, nothing needs to be done immediately. Everyone should do what they wish to grieve; some may want to stay with their deceased loved one, while others may want to leave the room.
How long can loved ones stay with the body?
The length of time you and your family can stay with your deceased loved one depends on where the death happens. Hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities may have limitations on how long you can occupy the room and stay with your loved one, but they may also be flexible if your family has religious, cultural or ethnic customs. The key is to discuss these customs with the facility’s staff early on, before your loved one passes, so that they can best work with you to ensure you have appropriate time for your rituals. Of course, if the death happens at home, you will have more control over the timing of events.
What should loved ones do while waiting for the caretaker?
After a loved one dies, surviving family members may not be sure how to act or what to do. You shouldn’t force anyone to do anything they’re uncomfortable with, but you can offer suggestions. Some may want to sit quietly with the deceased, while others may not want to be in the room at all. While some might have a lot of emotions, others may be numb and dazed by the passing of their loved one. You may want to comfort or console one another, share memories about the deceased, or hold a small ceremony with the support of a spiritual counselor or religious leader. Lastly, you or another family member may want to notify any family members or friends who are not present that the deceased has passed. Later on in this guide, we’ll provide tips about how to have these conversations.
What about rigor mortis?
One thing to expect after the deceased has passed is rigor mortis, the stiffening of the joints and muscles of a body after death. It begins to set in within a few hours of the person’s passing, so you may want to consider positioning your loved one’s body so that it is lying flat.
How to Cope with the Loss of a Loved One
- Joining a bereavement or support group
- Talking to a mental health professional (therapist or psychiatrist)
- Surrounding oneself with family and friends
Legal and Logistical Steps After Death
When someone dies, there are a lot of personal, financial and legal details to take care of. If they did not have a Will, the situation becomes even more complicated, since the laws of your state determine how the deceased estate will be handled. You or other family members would have to go to court in order to do things like paying your loved one’s bills or selling their car. If they died with minor children, the courts would also decide who would become their guardian, which could be very concerning in cases where the other parent is deceased or has a bad relationship with the deceased’s other family members.
If your loved one has a Will when they die, there is still a lot of work to do, but the pressure and complexity is significantly less. In these cases, the deceased’s Will would include how they want their assets distributed, who would care for their minor children, and who would act as their personal representative and executor of their estate.
This person would be responsible for most of the legal and logistical steps to take when someone dies. It’s a big job, as well as bureaucratic and stressful. Not only that, but the whole process can take a year or more from start to finish, and often the executor is a close family member of the deceased and therefore is grieving their loss while handling all of these logistics.
It’s a lot, and if your deceased loved one named you executor of their estate, you shouldn’t try to do it alone. Throughout the process, you should consult with professionals like CPAs and attorneys as well as asking for help from family and friends.
Checklist of Things to Do Right After Someone Dies
After the initial moments following your loved one’s passing, there are a few things the family members should do:
- Pay tribute to the accomplishments, character, and positive qualities of the deceased, including any time they spent in the military or public service (if applicable).
- Note the day, time and location of their funeral service or memorial.
- Do not go into detail about how the person passed away.
- Mention whom they are survived by (spouse, children, grandchildren, etc.).
How to Deliver News That
Someone Has Died
- Share the news in person, if possible. None of us want to receive bad news, but if we do, it can be easier to take if the person telling you does so in person. When you’re face-to-face, things like tone, body language, and facial expressions can help to convey the message in a more sympathetic, comforting manner. Of course, in-person conversations will not always be possible, such as if the person lives in another state. However, with tools like FaceTime or Zoom, you can share the sad tidings in the next-best way.
- Avoid using the words “died” or “dead”. Your primary objective with these conversations is to let a person’s loved ones know that they have died, but it’s still very important to take their feelings into account and attempt to reduce their emotional distress upon hearing the news. Words like “dead” and “died” are not very tactful, and may be harder for the person to process or accept. Instead, use phrases like “no longer with us”, “passed away”, or “moved on”.
- Keep the news short and simple. The news that a loved one has died can be overwhelming on its own, so you should try to share it simply. Don’t go into all of the details yet, and keep the news brief and straightforward, telling the person that their loved one has passed and a short explanation of why or how.
- Be prepared to answer questions. As they receive the news of their loved one’s passing, some people may have lots of questions, specifically about how the person died. You don’t need to have all of the answers, but you may want to be prepared to field them.
- Give them time and space. We all react differently to grief and loss. After you tell someone that their loved one has passed away, they may need some time and space to themselves. While your first instinct may be to hug them, don’t assume that they want physical comfort and ask before invading their personal space.
Who has the right to make funeral arrangements?
The people the deceased named in their Will as their executors (or, if the deceased didn’t make a Will, their nearest relatives) are primarily responsible for arranging their funeral.
Checklist of Things to Do Within Two Weeks of Someone’s Death
After family members have accomplished the immediate tasks after their loved one has died, there are a number of other timely things to do to proceed with managing their estate and affairs:
What Happens to a Will
When Someone Dies
- Locate the Will – Determine if your loved one had a Will. If they didn’t have this document, settling their estate is going to get pretty complicated, and you may need to hire an attorney to help.
- Validate the Will – If your loved one had a Will, it needs to be validated in court, a process known as probate. Usually the person who probates the Will is the person who was nominated to serve as personal representative or executor of the estate.
- Appoint the Personal Representative – Depending upon your state, anyone can petition the court to become administrator of a decedent’s estate. However, if multiple people petition the court for that role, the court usually gives preference to relatives per the laws of intestacy in the state. Again, this is why it is important to have a Will, so you can nominate your choices to serve as personal representative of your estate.
- Begin Settling the Estate – Once the Will has been probated and the personal representative (also known as the executor) has been appointed, they can begin gathering the assets and paying debts and finally making distributions to the beneficiaries pursuant to the terms of the Will. The personal representative should have the deceased’s mail redirected to them so that the personal representative can begin the due diligence of uncovering all the assets. This process is made easier if the decedent was organized and stored all important documents in a secure but accessible location such as the Gentreo Digital Family Vault.
- Gather Assets – The process of gathering assets can be complex and arduous. You will need to ascertain what assets if any the decedent owned and compile an inventory of them. This includes everything from personal property like kitchen supplies and furniture to bank accounts; real estate; automobiles; investment accounts. The personal representative needs to inform any financial institution where the decedent had assets about his/her appointment. All assets are then usually transferred into an estate account with the personal representative responsible for that account. For real estate, unless the Will includes a power to sell, you need court authority to sell. If the Will includes the authority, then the personal representative can proceed without court approval. If no one wants any of the personal items or there is no specific bequest in the Will, the personal representative sells those items and then adds the cash to the estate account. Usually those items do not have a high value. This “step” is a large one in and of itself because what action the personal representative takes in regards to the asset depends upon the asset. Further, unless the decedent was organized and shared all his/her information, the Personal Representative is almost like a detective in trying to uncover all the assets. This is why at gentreo.com, we offer the Digital Family Vault and Team sharing feature. It enables you to organize and list your assets/debts in a secure but accessible location. Furthermore, it is easy to edit as your assets change.
- Pay Debts – The easiest way to ascertain debts is by accessing the decedent’s mail and /or reviewing bank accounts for electronic funds transfers to pay bills. Most people/agencies who are owed money send regular statements in the mail detailing the amount owed. Certain bills should be cancelled right away like health insurance but others, such as those related to property may need to continue, like keeping the heat/lights on so the home can be inspected and sold. The Personal Representative must account for all of their actions so it is important to document what bills are paid. You should always pay in a way that there is a record, like a check.
- Distribute Bequeaths – After the assets are inventoried and debts are paid, the personal representative can make the gifts and distributions to beneficiaries as outlined in the deceased’s Will.
Who’s responsible for your parent’s medical bills after they die?
In most cases, the deceased person’s estate is responsible for paying any debt left behind, including medical bills. However, if there’s not enough money in the estate, family members are usually not responsible for covering a loved one’s medical debt after death — although there are some exceptions.
Common Services to Cancel
When a Loved One Dies
Here is a list of common services that people have, which you may need to cancel on your loved one’s behalf when they pass away. We’ve included helpful links to direct you about how to cancel these accounts. In most cases, you’ll need copies of the death certificate to cancel your loved one’s accounts.
Cancelling Your Loved One's Social Media Accounts
You can delete your deceased loved one’s Facebook or Instagram accounts, but you may want to turn these accounts into a memorial for your loved one instead. In Facebook’s case, this change adds the word “Remembering” in front of the deceased’s name, and friends will still be able to post on the timeline. Whether you choose to delete or memorialize your loved one’s social media accounts, you’ll need a copy of your ID as well as the death certificate.
- Social Security Administration – If someone who is receiving Social Security benefits passes away, their death must be notified to the Social Security Administration to stop benefit checks. Typically, the funeral director will handle this step, but they may not, and it is ultimately the survivors’ responsibility to ensure this is done. Contact the local Social Security Administration office in your deceased loved one’s town of residence, and they will inform Medicaid if applicable.
- Department of Motor Vehicles – Contact the Department of Motor Vehicles for their state and cancel their driver’s license. Doing so will remove them from the DMV’s records and prevents identity theft. You will need a copy of their death certificate, and their local DMV may have specific instructions for you to follow.
- Banks & Financial Institutions – You will need to get access to your loved one’s bank and other financial accounts, and provide them with a copy of the death certificate in order to close the accounts. For credit cards, contact the creditor’s customer service and inform them that you’re closing the account on behalf of a deceased relative. Keep records of all accounts you close, and inform the executor of any outstanding balances on the cards, since these will need to be paid by the estate.
How long do you need to keep bank statements after a death?
Keep the deceased’s financial documents for at least three years following their death, or three years after any necessary estate taxes are filed (whichever is sooner).
- Insurance Provider – To make claims on any life insurance policies the deceased had, you will need policy numbers and a copy of the death certificate for the benefit to be released. Inform any other insurance providers (home, auto, health, etc.) of your loved one’s death, and end coverage for now unnecessary policies. You may be able to get a refund for any unused premiums.
- Stockbrokers & Financial Advisors – If your loved one had any investment accounts, stocks or bonds, you should contact their financial advisor or broker to close the account and distribute the assets to the beneficiaries your loved one chose in their Will. Beneficiaries may need to simply fill out a few forms and provide a copy of the death certificate to access the asset, depending on the type.
- Credit Agencies – It’s important to protect your loved one’s identity, even though they have passed. Report their death to all three major firms (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) and send copies of the death certificate to prevent identity theft and further complications to the settling of the estate.
When a loved one passes away, it can be challenging for their surviving family and friends in many ways. If you were named as their executor and personal representative of their estate in their Will, there are many things to do and it can be a full-time job to settle their estate, especially if they did not prepare and store their records in a convenient, digital location. We hope this comprehensive guide will help you navigate the process of settling your loved one’s estate and reinforces your own estate planning, so that you can prevent similar stress and work for your loved ones if you should pass away.