What to do when a family member dies

An after-death checklist for survivors.

Article published: December 11, 2021

When someone you love dies, the job of closing out his or her personal, financial and legal affairs might fall to you. It’s a stressful task – typically involving an avalanche of paperwork – and it typically comes at a time when you’re least prepared to handle it.

That’s why our first recommendation for what to do when a family member dies is the most important: Consider delaying all financial decisions for at least six months. During this time, devote yourself to your grief and your family. Spend time with loved ones – not lawyers, accountants and bankers.

Keep in mind that the vast majority of financial, legal and tax issues can wait months before they need attention, so don’t feel as though you’re under pressure to make decisions quickly. You don’t even need to open the mail – it too can wait. While there are things you need to know if you’re the executor of an estate, you’ll learn that many things, like monthly bills, are not a top priority after a family member dies.

Of course, some things need to be handled right away. You may take the lead in planning the funeral and then hand off the financial details to the executor. Or you may be the executor. If you’re the executor, enlist the help of three specialists: an estate attorney, your financial planner and the deceased’s accountant. (Some states let you appoint co-executors who have special expertise to work with you.)

There are a few administrative tasks that should be addressed. Follow this after-death checklist for survivors as a starting point – or ask a trusted friend or key family member to help you go through it quickly and easily.

1. Determine whether the deceased had engaged in funeral planning.

A growing number of Americans pay in advance for their own funeral and burial services. This helps to ensure all their wishes are carried out and eases the burden on their family because many decisions will already have been made. Try to find out whether the deceased did that, so you can avoid paying twice.

2. Locate important documents.

Examples include the deceased’s original wills, trusts, deeds and titles to real property, Social Security card, marriage and birth certificates, honorable discharge papers and recent tax returns.

3. Order at least 10 copies of the death certificate.

Most institutions you’ll deal with will want one. You can get them from the funeral home for a nominal fee or from your state’s health department.

4. Inform financial professionals.

Tell your financial planner, tax preparer and estate attorney that the family member has died. Make sure each is aware of the others, as teamwork is essential. Before work begins, address the fees associated with efforts to settle the estate.

5. Gather all insurance contracts.

Examples include life, homeowners, auto, disability and Long-Term Care insurance. Inform the agent who sold the policies or the insurance companies of the death. They may send you information and paperwork so you can cancel coverage no longer needed or begin the distribution of benefits.

6. Call the deceased’s current or former employer.

That way, you can learn about retirement plans, pension benefits, health and life insurance coverage, and other employee benefits the spouse may be entitled to receive.

7. Contact the Social Security Administration to determine the surviving spouse’s benefits and start the claims process.

Claims can be expedited by making an appointment at your local office. Ask what you should bring to the meeting. This will usually include proof of death, proof of age and dependency of children, proof of marriage and proof of divorce if applicable. Social Security pays a one-time death benefit of $255 toward burial expenses if there is a surviving spouse or children. Your funeral director can complete the application and apply the amount toward your bill. If the deceased has minor children, they may be entitled to receive Social Security benefits, so be sure to ask. And if the deceased had been receiving Social Security benefits, talk with the SSA before you cash any check you receive after the family member’s death.

8. Compile a list of the deceased’s assets.

This includes bank and investment account statements, real estate holdings, collectibles, vehicles and other assets owned by the deceased at the time of death. If documents were not kept in a central location, watch the mail and save every envelope that looks like it might be financially related. Later, you or a family member can review the paperwork.

9. Notify the post office, utility companies, credit card companies, banks and other businesses of the death so that recurring charges are stopped.

Have the deceased’s mail forwarded to you. Cancel the decedent’s driver’s license with the state’s motor vehicles department.

10. It can take several months for credit agencies to be notified of a death, so send copies of your loved one’s death certificate via certified mail promptly to the three major credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

Include papers certifying that you are the executor, or the person authorized to represent the decedent; the decedent’s full name, date of birth and Social Security number; the decedent’s most recent address; and the date of death. Ask the credit bureaus to put a “deceased – do not issue credit” alert on the person’s credit files. This helps reduce the risk of the deceased being a victim of identity theft.

It’s impossible to provide an all-inclusive checklist for handling the details when a family member dies because each family situation is different and legal requirements vary from state to state. We hope this basic checklist helps you get started, and enlisting the assistance of your attorney and financial planner will be a key step.

This material was prepared for informational and/or educational purposes only. Neither Edelman Financial Engines, a division of Financial Engines Advisors L.L.C., nor its affiliates offer tax or legal advice. Interested parties are strongly encouraged to seek advice from qualified tax and/or legal experts regarding the best options for your particular circumstances.