Dear Savvy Senior,
This may seem like a strange question, but can you tell me what steps need to be taken after a loved one dies? My 80-year-old father has a terminal illness, and I would like to find out what I will need to do when he passes.
I’m sorry about your father’s situation but this is a great question many families inquire about when a loved one’s death becomes imminent. Here’s a run-down of some things you can do now, and after his death, that can help keep a sad event from becoming even more painful.
Before Death Occurs
There are several tasks you can do now while your father is still living, that will make things a lot easier and less hectic for you after he dies.
For starters, find out where your dad keeps all his important papers like his will (also make sure it’s updated), birth certificate, marriage and divorce certificates, Social Security information, life-insurance policies, military discharge papers, financial documents, and keys to a safe deposit box or home safe.
Also, if your dad doesn’t have an advanced directive, help him make one (see CaringInfo.org for free state-specific forms and instructions). An advanced directive includes a living will that specifies his end-of-life medical treatments, and appoints a health-care proxy to make medical decisions if he becomes incapacitated.
In addition, you may also want to get a do-not-resuscitate (DNR) order, which will tell health care professionals not to perform CPR when your dad’s heart or breathing stops. Your dad’s doctor can help you with this.
You should also pre-arrange his funeral and burial or cremation.
Immediately After Death
Once your father dies, you’ll need to get a legal pronouncement of death. If no doctor is present, you’ll need to contact someone to do this. So, if your dad dies at home under hospice care, call the hospice nurse, who can declare his death and help facilitate the transport of the body.
If he dies at home without hospice care, call 911, and have in hand his DNR document. Without one, paramedics will generally start emergency procedures and, except where permitted to pronounce death, take the person to an emergency room for a doctor to make the declaration.
If no autopsy is needed, you will need to call the funeral home, mortuary or crematorium to pick up the body. If your dad is an organ or tissue donor, contact the funeral home or the county coroner immediately.
Within a Few Days
If funeral plans were not pre-arranged, you’ll need to make arrangements and prepare an obituary. If your dad was in the military or belonged to a fraternal or religious group, you should contact those organizations too, because they may have burial benefits or conduct funeral services.
Up to 10 Days After Death
To wind down your dad’s financial affairs, you’ll need to get multiple copies of his death certificate. These are typically provided by the funeral home.
If you’re the executor of your dad’s estate, take his will to the appropriate county or city office to have it accepted for probate. And open a bank account for your dad’s estate to pay bills, including taxes, funeral costs, etc.
You also need to contact your dad’s estate attorney if he has one; tax preparer to see if estate or final income taxes should be filed; financial advisor for information on financial holdings; life insurance agent to get claim forms; his bank to locate and close accounts; and Social Security (800-772-1213) and other agencies that provided benefits to stop payments and, if applicable, ask about survivor benefits. You should also cancel his credit cards and, if relevant, stop household services like utilities, mail, etc.
For more information on the duties of an executor, a great resource is “The Executor’s Guide: Settling A Loved One’s Estate or Trust” available at Nolo.com for $32.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.