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What to Do After a Death in the Family

The days and weeks after a death are a stressful time, but they can be made a little easier if you understand the financial issues that need to be addressed.

Obtain a death certificate. Deaths must be recorded with local or state authorities, which will issue a death certificate that states the cause, location and time of death and other information about the deceased. The death certificate can be obtained through a funeral home or from the county or state in which the person lived. You may need several copies of this document, which will be important for a variety of steps you’ll take following a death, including:

  • Gaining access to the deceased’s bank, investment or pension accounts.
  • Claiming life insurance and other benefits. 
  • Settling the decedent’s estate.

Locate other vital records. Besides the death certificate, other important documents you will need include:

  • A copy of their will.
  • Information about any trusts in force.
  • Details about assets. That will include statements for all bank and investment accounts, life insurance policies, stock and bond certificates, deeds for any real estate owned and titles to all vehicles.
  • If the decedent owned a business or a share in one, the executor or beneficiaries may need access to accounts and documents for it, including financial statements, tax returns and account statements.
  • Contracts, including leases and loan documents.
  • Copies of outstanding bills.

To make it easy to find these documents when they are needed, it’s best to keep them in a safe place and to ensure that the executor or family members know how to find them. To ensure you receive all necessary future documents, have the decedent’s mail forwarded to whoever is handled their estate. 

Arrange for a funeral. Find out what the deceased’s wishes were (such as burial or cremation), if they favored a particular mortuary or funeral home and if they made any prepayments for funeral or burial expenses. Funerals can be expensive, but there are ways to manage the costs. Cremation, for example, is less expensive than burial, and a memorial service in a location of your choice can be less costly than a service in a funeral home. In addition, churches, unions and community organizations are some of the potential sources for financial assistance in a time of need.  

When working with a funeral home, remember that you are eligible to receive an itemized price list for all services, and that you can buy a casket, urn or flowers from another source. When you are shown a display of coffins, ask if other models are available (including less expensive ones). If you or a loved one want to prepay the funeral, consider putting that money in a savings account so you can rely on having the money available when you need it and in case you change your mind about the funeral arrangements.

Notify the Social Security office. This task, which the funeral director may do for you, is important because payments must be stopped and, if there is a surviving spouse or dependents, survivor’s benefits should be started.

Be aware of options for veterans. Burial in a national cemetery is available for eligible veterans, their spouses and dependents. Eligible veterans buried in a private cemetery can receive a government headstone, market or medallion, a burial flag and a Presidential Memorial Certificate. In addition, families of eligible veterans can receive financial assistance for burials and funeral expenses, as well as a plot interment allowance. Some spouses and children of a deceased veteran with wartime experience may also qualify for survivors benefits from the Veterans Administration.