Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
One of the most painful things any of us can experience is the death of a loved one. During this time, it’s normal to feel lost, alone and confused.
It seems almost insurmountable to think about planning a funeral, let alone getting their estate in order and figuring out the logistics of end-of-life planning during your bereavement. Grief is profoundly destabilizing and even the simplest decisions can feel overwhelming and impossible.
Having guided many clients through the loss of a loved one (and having been through loss several times in my own life), I’ve often wished there was a simple checklist or a straightforward guide to addressing end-of-life affairs. So, I decided to put together a simple step-by-step process to help you through this difficult time.
Grieving takes time and energy. Right now, you need to focus on caring for yourself and making it through the day. Follow these steps to settle the affairs of your loved one so you can get back to honoring their memory and finding peace.
Table of Contents
To make this process easier, I’ve compiled three free helpful checklists in our resource library. By accessing the library, you will also join our supportive Making Cents Count community, where you’ll receive full access to our helpful hints and tips.
1. The First Step When Someone Dies: Address End-of-Life Logistics
When someone passes away, the grief and shock can take a while to settle in. Each person grieves in his or her own way — some find that dealing with logistics gives them a concrete sense of control over the circumstances. Others may feel foggy and experience difficulty when making decisions.
There’s no right or wrong way to process the death of a loved one, but unfortunately, there are logistical decisions that someone will need to make during this time. The first step is to do your best to get these different pieces in order, especially if you are the next of kin.
The most natural guidance is to seek instructions your loved one may have left about his or her wishes, funeral, and burial arrangements. I advise my clients to have these difficult conversations with your loved ones whenever possible because you never know when tragedy can strike.
Of course, these conversations aren’t always possible, and sometimes it’s too late. If this is the case, do your best to gather together any materials you can. Go through those boxes of notes, paperwork, and photos. These pieces can clue you in on the wishes of your loved ones and they can also help you in planning an appropriate wake, funeral, or remembrance. Funeral homes are often good advisors in terms of planning the end-of-life tribute or celebration of life. They can walk you through the funeral service, obituary, and burial.
Turn to a friend or trusted family member to help during this process, especially if you’re struggling. You may need to make painful calls to friends and relatives, contact your loved one’s employer, and get legal advice from a reputable estate planning attorney on items like the will or trust.
These steps can be challenging under a cloud of grief, so a trusted advisor can really help you remember the different pieces. For example, you will need to get multiple copies of the certified death certificate, as many institutions and organizations will require it.
For more information and a helpful checklist, please see Part 1: When Someone You Care About Dies in the Making Cents Count resource library.
2. The Second Step When Someone Dies: Contact Relevant Organizations
When someone passes away, there are a lot of contacts you need to make. The first, most helpful contact will likely be the funeral home. Funeral directors are highly familiar with the needs of grieving families and they can be an excellent early point of contact.
You will also need to contact your loved one’s life insurance carrier, other insurance carriers, financial institutions, and creditors. Places like member associations, veteran’s affairs offices, and employers will have information on death benefits and important papers you will need to settle his or her estate.
You will need to notify social security and should also seek financial, tax, and investment advice, particularly if there are children or a trust involved. If the deceased was a single parent, conservatorship or guardianship might require the guidance of a lawyer.
If your loved one has appointed an executor for their will and estate, that person will oversee the distribution of money and settling of debts with creditors and lenders. If there is no executor or you can’t find end-of-life documents, you will likely need legal guidance to oversee the process.
Estate distribution is tricky and can be tough to navigate for even the closest family members. Often, there are a lot of conflicts that can arise when emotions are raw and sensitive. I can’t stress enough seeking out reputable legal guidance and professional oversight, you’ll ensure that cooler heads prevail and meet the wishes of your loved one.
For more guidance on the various contacts you will need to make, along with a complete checklist, please see Part 2: Organizations You May Need to Contact When Someone You Care About Dies in our free resource library.
3. The Third Step When Someone Dies: Get Documents in Order
Even on the best days, many of us struggle to organize and process paperwork. When a loved one has passed away, the last thing on anyone’s mind is filling out complicated forms and compiling documents.
But alas, during the estate settlement process, many documents and forms require careful attention. If you are struggling, you may again want to enlist the help and support of a trusted (non-biased) friend or family member who can assist you in gathering the pieces you will need. In this process, it’s helpful to choose someone who isn’t as emotionally involved to help you navigate.
At a minimum, you will likely need the death certificate, life insurance claim form, and forms from the funeral home. There will also be legal documents regarding marriages, dependents, and the distribution of your loved one’s estate.
Depending on your loved one’s cause of death, there will likely be a police report, coroner’s report, and a medical report determining the cause and circumstances surrounding the passing. These documents should be carefully kept along with the certified death certificate (and certified copies), as you will often need them as you settle the estate.
For a complete list of the documents needed, please see the resource library for Part 3: Documents You May Need When Someone You Care About Dies. In these resources, I’ve outlined all the items in a clear, printable list. Some members of our community have found it helpful to print the lists out and keep them on hand as they go through the estate settlement process.
Making it Through This Difficult Time
Of all the financial situations we face, losing a loved one is the most challenging and stressful. It seems callous and unfair to think about finances when you are going through the grieving process, but unfortunately, it is a necessity.
My best advice is to use this time as a learning process. After personally experiencing the pain and chaos brought on from losing a loved one, when end-of-life documents were “unavailable”, I vowed never to let my family go through the same experience in the event of my own death. It was an eye-opening moment for me to get my personal affairs in order and to create a clear plan and checklist of all my financial documents.
It’s never pleasant to prepare for the worst, but preparing puts our minds at ease. We no longer need to worry about what will happen to our children or siblings if they’re faced with closing our estate. Fights and squabbles with family members are more easily avoided with clear plans and documentation. End of life planning is especially important if you’ve experienced any health concerns (but it’s really critical for everyone).
I often say grief brings out the best and worst in people. In some cases, you will even witness someone’s true character bubble up to the surface. You never know what will happen when emotions are running high, so it’s best to document as much as possible and leave a clear plan for your family to follow. You are giving them a gift by protecting them from difficulties down the road.
Life insurance, a living will, power of attorney, and medical directive will ensure your loved ones won’t face tough choices and painful decisions in their darkest hour. For now, take small comfort in this important lesson and use it as motivation to get your own affairs in order.
You will make it through this difficult time. May the memories of your loved ones bring you peace and comfort in the hope of a brighter tomorrow.
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