Death and taxes may be certain, but the details surrounding them often are not. Uncertainty around what happens after someone dies can cause anxiety and challenge familial relationships. However, thoughtful planning and the guidance of knowledgeable professionals can greatly reduce anxiety and give you and your family clarity and confidence during this time of transition.

Knowing what to expect can go a long way in easing apprehension around death. We hope this article provides you peace of mind and know that we are here for you as questions and needs arise.

Despite the fact that most Americans would prefer to die at home, the vast majority of us die in hospitals and other facilities. Regardless of where your loved one dies, a number of things will need to be done immediately, within a day or two, and in the following weeks.

WITHIN MINUTES TO A COUPLE OF DAYS 

Pronouncement of Death – All deaths must be legally certified and recorded. The pronouncement of death by an authorized person starts this process. When your family member dies in a hospital or nursing home, the staff will ensure there is an official pronouncement of death. Each facility will have its own process, and it may take a few minutes for the appropriate provider to arrive and pronounce official time of death. In such cases, the official time of death may lag the actual time of death by a few to several minutes.

If your loved one dies at home and is a registered hospice patient, call the hospice nurse, who will come to the home to make the pronouncement. If hospice is not involved, call 911. For non-hospice deaths that occur outside of hospitals and other facilities, the County Coroner or Medical Examiner will respond. If your loved one has a “Do Not Resuscitate” order, it is a good idea to have a copy of it on hand.

The Medical Examiner will determine if the death needs to be investigated, according to state statute. Any deaths that are not wholly the result of natural disease are investigated to determine the official cause and manner of death. As part of an investigation, the Medical Examiner may or may not order an autopsy.

Arrange for Transport – Arranging for transport of your deceased family member to the funeral home or cremation service will be handled by facility staff in hospitals and nursing homes. Be sure to let them know the funeral home choice. If your loved one dies at home, hospice may help you reach out to the funeral home. Otherwise, the Medical Examiner or emergency responders will let you know when you can call the funeral home.

Notify Friends and Family – Call family and friends and let them know about your loved one’s passing. Having your call list prepared will ensure that everyone who should be informed is. When the time comes, you may not want to make all of these calls yourself; ask family and friends to help if needed and assign them portions of the list.

Religious Support – Even when death is expected and the family is well prepared, it is often an intense experience. You may wish to request bereavement support, either before, immediately after, or later, and oftentimes throughout the experience. If you are part of a religious community, your pastor, priest, or other religious leader may provide support for you and family members at your loved one’s bedside. Having a conversation in advance will help you understand how to reach him or her when your family needs support. Many hospitals also provide 24-hour chaplain services, available to anyone, regardless of religious belief or tradition. Inquire with nursing staff about their availability.

Important Housekeeping Items – After a family member dies, it can be easy to get caught up in the big items, like making funeral arrangements and processing the will. Don’t overlook the smaller housekeeping items. Be aware of where valuables like wedding rings, wallets, devices, keys, and glasses are. When possible, place these items into safe-keeping before your loved one passes away. Lock vehicles. Secure the home. Ensure pets are in good care. Locate the safe or file containing important documents.

Family Meeting – Within 24 hours, gather with family in person or by phone to discuss post-mortem care, funeral, and burial planning. If you do not know if there are planning documents (will, advance directive, funeral plan), look for these items in safes and file cabinets, and reach out to your loved one’s attorney. Be sure to have this information on hand when meeting with your family. Arrangements for final disposition (cremation, burial) must be made in a timely manner, but not all decisions have to be made immediately. Take the time to ensure that family members have the opportunity to express their wishes for post-mortem care and funeral arrangements. Death is a naturally stressful event for families. Distributing related tasks will allow everyone to feel useful and prevent individuals from feeling overwhelmed. Good communication during this time will facilitate healthy grieving, celebration of the decedent’s life, and family connection.

Funeral Arrangements – Within 24 hours, contact the funeral home to make plans for services and final disposition. Nearly all funeral homes and cremation services are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Federal law entitles families access to funeral service pricing over the phone and the right to buy only the services they want. Costs may vary significantly, so if expense is an important factor, make some calls and check online. Payment for funeral services is typically required upfront. In many cases, life insurance can be assigned directly to the funeral home to cover costs.

In Minnesota, funeral directors must complete a four-year degree program in mortuary science and pass examinations to obtain state licensure. Their expertise will guide you through this process. Be sure to communicate openly about what is important to you, your family, and your deceased loved one. If there are decisions that the family has not yet made, let your funeral director know. Funeral directors will work directly with the hospital or nursing home to coordinate transportation and to gather information for the death certificate. You will also be asked to provide the funeral director with information for the death certificate, including the decedent’s Social Security Number and other identifying and historical information.

Decedent’s Employer – If your family member is employed, his/her employer should be notified as soon as possible. Inquire about life insurance and other benefits, pay, and any possessions he/she may have at his/her place of work.

WITHIN DAYS TO WEEKS

In addition to the things that have to be addressed in the first day or two, there are a number of activities that will happen in the following weeks and months.

Death Certificates – Your funeral director will instruct you on how to obtain death certificates and how many you will need. It may take up to two weeks to receive death certificates, and longer if the Medical Examiner orders an autopsy. If you need the death certificate earlier, ask your funeral director for guidance. The funeral home may issue a Fact of Death that would satisfy the requirements of some organizations. However, life insurers and government agencies will not accept anything other than official death certificates.

Mail – Within a few days of your loved one’s passing, the Executor (Personal Representative), or legal next of kin should forward the deceased family member’s mail to the address of the Executor (Personal Representative), or legal next of kin. The Executor (Personal Representative), or legal next of kin will need to go to the post office to complete a Change of Address form.

Bills and Cancellation of Services – If your loved one received care in a facility or at home, check in with the billing office to determine account and insurance status and how patient payments are typically made. You may need to go through the facility’s Records office to gain access to billing information (as well as your loved one’s medical records). Inquire if there is anything you need to do to officially notify the facility of your family member’s passing and cancel any scheduled appointments.

Cancel unnecessary services, like trash, television, internet, and subscription services. Looking at charges to your family member’s credit cards and debits from checking accounts will give you a good idea of ongoing services. A purse or wallet is a good place to start to identify financial institutions. Be sure to check the mail too.

Prevent Identity Theft – To prevent identity theft, cancel your family member’s driver’s license by sending a copy of the death certificate, obituary, or memorial card to the Minnesota Driver and Vehicle Services. Send copies of death certificates to all three credit bureaus, close email accounts, and close or memorialize social media accounts. The process will vary by company and will require some time and patience.

Estate:  Financial, Insurance, Retirement, and Benefits – In many cases, you will need or choose to work with an attorney to execute your family member’s will or trust and handle estate matters. However, there are some actions you can take prior to meeting with your attorney. Notify the Social Security Administration (SSA), Veterans Affairs, other government agencies, retirement accounts, and insurance providers of your family member’s passing by sending each agency an original certificate of death, along with any forms the agencies require.

Oftentimes, funeral homes will notify the SSA on your behalf, but confirm this with them. The responsibility for notification lies with the Executor (Personal Representative), or legal next of kin. To collect life insurance proceeds, you will need to provide policy numbers as well as the death certificate.

The timeline for closing and transferring financial accounts and titles and terminating insurance policies will depend on several factors but should be done in as timely a manner as possible.

SUMMARY

When a loved one passes away, you will likely experience a spectrum of emotions, some expected and some not. Adding to this hopefully unfamiliar experience is a long to-do list that can feel overwhelming. Seek connection and support of family and friends and lean on professionals who can provide clarity and peace of mind as you walk through this challenging time.

One of the most caring things we can do to help our families and protect family relationships after we are gone is to plan well and provide clear communications around our wishes. In doing so, we can give our loved ones a welcome sense of certainty in the face of this difficult transition. At Kennedy & Ruhsam Law, we provide caring and practical expertise built on decades of service to families in the areas of estate planning, probate, tax, and business law. Contact our office at (651) 262-2080 or via email at clerk@mpkennedylaw.com.