What to do when someone dies?
Updated: Nov 14, 2022
Witnessing someone die or being there during the final stages of someone’s life can be a very upsetting experience. Most of us would respond with shock, distress, or sadness, even more so if we were close to the person that has passed away. As a society we tend to shy away from thoughts and talk of death, preferring not to contemplate it, or learn how to respond to another person’s passing. It’s important to educate ourselves on what procedures need to be taken if someone we know has passed away. Prior to their funeral, or memorial ceremony, many forms need to be filled and people contacted.
The death of a loved one is hard enough without all the paperwork, but there are easier way to navigate things, and many organisations are out there that you can turn to for helpful advice.
What should my immediate response be?
Your immediate response, in terms of what action to take, is highly context dependent. The next steps following a death in the home, or a death in a hospital will be very different. Below is a breakdown of the best way to navigate various circumstances of death.
What do I need to do if someone dies at home?
If someone dies at home you will need to contact a close relative and their family doctor to let them know. Their doctor will give you a medical certificate stating cause of death (if known). They will also inform you how to register their death, but for anyone that is not sure we’ll explain how to do so.
In addition to the above, you will also need to call a funeral director to have the body taken to a funeral home.
How do I register a death?
You will need to have an official declaration of death before you can register someone’s passing. This will be sorted by medical professionals if they passed away in a hospital, or the medical team after 911 has been contacted if they died at their home or another location. A death certificate can then be ordered from the vital statistics office in the state in which they died. When purchasing the death certificate, it is best to get several copies because these will be needed for the will, savings, pension claims, etc. Requesting extra copies at a later date can be particularly expensive.
After this has been seen to, you will need to take their will to probate (the legal process of executing a will). This can be done at a county or city state probate office. A probate court will make sure debts and liabilities have been paid and if not, that any assets left are transferred to beneficiaries.
An inventory of the deceased’s assets (house, car, bank accounts, furniture, jewellery, etc.) will need to be put together (sometimes referred to as marshalling the assets). This can take a long while. Alongside putting an inventory together you will also need to complete the following procedures:
Comprise a list of their bills
Work out what to do with their passport
Cancel, if they were a driver, their driving license
Terminate insurance policies
Delete their social media accounts
Cancel their email account
Update voter registration
What happens when a death is unexpected?
If the cause of death is uncertain, call 911. There is a chance they could be resuscitated and the medical personnel at the end of the line will let you know what to do. If resuscitation isn’t an option, police will be told of the news and will arrange for a coroner to come by to not only take the body but ascertain the cause of death through an autopsy.
What to do if someone dies abroad
If someone you know has passed away abroad, their death will need to be registered according to the regulations of that country. You will need to register their death with the American Consul in the country they are in, in order to get a consulate death certificate that can be kept in the USA.
What happens after someone dies at a hospital?
The hospital will issue both a medical certificate as well as a formal notice. The staff that have been caring for the recently deceased will know what to do next. The body will then be held at a hospital mortuary until plans are put in place by a close relative for a funeral director to take the body.
Who do I need to speak to after someone has died?
Beyond immediate family, friends, or a partner, there are many people, businesses, and authorities that need to be informed of someone's death.
Here are the organisations that will need to be contacted:
The Social Security administration
Insurance companies they have accounts with
Mortgage provider or housing association
Their doctor, dentist, optician and other medical care providers
Any outstanding subscriptions the deceased made regular payments too
Credit agency (to prevent identity theft)
What do I do if I have power of attorney over the deceased?
The Power of Attorney (POA) ceases when the donor dies. The only way you might continue to manage their affairs is if you have been appointed as executor of their will, or their estate.
When should I organise the funeral?
As soon as you can. There is a lot to consider when planning a funeral — the budget, the deceased’s wishes, location, whether or not to have a wake, etc. If you are unsure about funeral planning, we have an article explaining how to plan a funeral for you to look through.
If you are struggling with the death of a loved one, there are many bereavement services out there that can provide support at this difficult time. Don’t forget to reach out to those that can provide comfort during your grief. Aura Flights have put together an article about grief and loss which might be of help to you.