What to Do When A Loved One Dies

santa cruz county estate planning attorney

Coping with the loss of a loved one is difficult.  I hope this information will help you focus on what you need to do and what you may wish to delegate to friends and family.  There is no need for you to do everything yourself at a time of grief.

This list is not exhaustive, but should get you started on the basic steps to take.  If I can be of any assistance, please let me know.

TO DO RIGHT AWAY (Within 7 Days of the Death):

  • Notification of deathIf your loved one dies at home, call his/her doctor or 911.  Once paramedics arrive, they maynotify the local coroner or medical examiner.  If your loved one was receiving hospice services, call the hospice nurse for instructions.  If your loved one dies in the hospital, notify a nurse.
  • Take the time you need.   You may wish to spend a little time with the body to say goodbye before the body is removed.  Take the time you need and do not feel rushed.
  • Call the funeral home, cremation service, or if the body is being donated for medical education or research, the applicable medical school to arrange for removal of the body.  Also, check through your loved one’s papers to see if he/she has a prepaid funeral plan and if so, notify the funeral home or cremation service. 
  • If your loved one was a veteran, check with the Veteran’s Administration to see if he/she qualifies for memorial/burial benefits and survivor and dependent benefits.  You can reach the VA at 1/800/698-2411.    For information on VA funeral benefits, please see https://www.va.gov/burials-memorials/veterans-burial-allowance/.  For information on VA benefits for surviving spouses and dependent children, please see https://www.va.gov/family-member-benefits/.
  • Organ donation.  Check the loved one’s drivers license, advance directive, and other paperwork to see if he/she wished to be an organ donor.  The advance directive may state whether your loved one wished to donate his/her body for medical education or research.  Your loved one’s doctor may also have this information.  If your loved one is an organ donor, be sure to inform the funeral home or cremation service.
  • Obtain death certificates from the funeral director at the funeral home or cremation service.   Get multiple copies of the death certificate (at least five) because banks, Social Security, etc., may require a certificate to prove the death of your loved one.
  • Secure your loved one’s home and belongings.  If no one is at your loved one’s home, be sure that the house is locked and that his/her car is parked in a secure location.  Consider setting a timer to have lights go on at the house at a designated time, so that the house will not appear empty.  Remove perishable food and garbage from the house and car.   Arrange for someone to pick up the mail and cancel newspaper subscriptions.
  • Care for your loved one’s dependents and pets.  If there are children or seniors who need care living at your loved one’s home, arrange for someone to stay with them and provide the necessary care.  Also arrange for the care of pets.
  • Notify family members and friends.  Depending on your loved one’s social network, there may be many or just a few persons to notify.  If there is not a list of people to contact in your loved one’s estate planning binder, look for an address book.  You may wish to notify just close family and friends as a first step, and ask one or more of them to help you notify others who need to know of your loved one’s passing.
  • Notify your loved one’s place of worship (if any) to arrange for a memorial service (if desired).   Check your loved one’s estate planning binder and other paperwork to see if they have left instructions regarding a memorial service.
  • Notify a local newspaper if you wish to have an obituary publishedThe newspaper will ask you for some basic biographical information about your loved one.
  • Try to find your loved one’s important papers, such as his/her will and/or trust, insurance policies, Social Security card, bank statements, DD-214 if your loved one was in the military, deeds and titles to property, monthly bills, checkbooks, location of safety deposit box and key, etc.  If my office prepared the estate plan, the will and/or trust should be in an estate planning binder.
  • Try to find out who is the executor for the estate designated in the will and/or the successor trustee designated in your loved one’s revocable living trust. Be sure to notify these persons of your loved one’s passing and that they have a copy of your loved one’s will and/or trust.  If my office prepared the estate plan, this information will be in the estate planning binder.
  • (For executors and successor trustees).  Contact an attorney who practices estate administration and probate to help with handling your loved one’s estateDepending on circumstances, the attorney may need to file a probate proceeding or if your loved one’s property is in a trust, to assist you with administration of your loved one’s trust to carry out his/her wishes.  Even if your loved one’s estate will not owe estate taxes, in some cases, it may be necessary to file an estate tax return (Form 706) with the Internal Revenue Service to document charitable deductions, claim portability of the spousal estate tax exemption, etc.  Your attorney can advise you on the steps that need to be taken and the applicable deadlines

You are welcome to contact me by phone at 831/685-3270 or by e-mail at myraprestidgelaw@charter.net.  The county bar association lawyer referral service for your county can also provide a referral to an attorney.  You can reach the Santa Cruz County Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service at (831) 425-4755.  The phone number for the Santa Clara County Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service is (408) 971-6822.

  • Take good care of yourselfLosing a loved one is very stressful.  Be sure to rest and eat well.   Enlist the help of family members or friends so that you do not have to do everything yourself.  Do the most meaningful tasks yourself and try to delegate the others.  If people offer to help, say “yes”.

TO DO AS SOON AS POSSIBLE (Within the First Month of the Death)

  • Call the Social Security Administration at 1/800/772-1213 and notify them of your loved one’s death.  (You cannot report a death to Social Security online.)  In some cases, widows, widowers, and dependents of your loved one may be eligible for benefits after the death.  For more information, please see https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/survivors/ or contact the Social Security Administration.  Additionally, in some cases, a surviving spouse or child may be eligible for a one-time death benefit of $255.  For more information, please see https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/survivors/ifyou.html#h7.
  • Notify your loved one’s bank and the holders of investment accounts, etc., of the death.  Some accounts may be payable to a beneficiary upon death of the account holder.  Consider waiting at least a month before closing checking accounts to allow checks to clear.
  • Credit cards.  If credit cards are in the name of your loved one alone, contact the credit card companies and have a freeze put on the account or close the account to prevent unauthorized use.  Joint credit cards with a spouse can still be used after a death.
  • Notify retirement account holders (401k, IRAs, etc.) and life insurance company of your loved one’s death and arrange for payment to beneficiary.
  • Cancel drivers license, insurance policies.  Cancel your loved one’s drivers license, insurance policies, etc.
  • Notify the County Registrar of Voters of the death.  The phone number for the Santa Cruz County Elections Department is 831/454-2060.  The phone number for the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters is 1/866/430-8683.  Their e-mail address is registrar@rov.sccgov.org.
  • Cancel appointments, upcoming trips.  Cancel any upcoming appointments or plans for trips that your loved one had made.
  • Move your loved one’s belongings out of assisted living or board and care facility or rented housing, check on security deposit.  If your loved one was living in an assisted living or board and care facility, or was renting his/her home, check the contract or rental agreement to find out your obligations to give notice and remove your loved one’s belongings.  Find out whether your loved one’s estate is entitled to refund of any security deposit paid to the landlord.
  • Notify employer.  If your loved one was employed, notify the employer of the death and find out if there are any benefits available, including payment of accrued vacation and sick time, an employer-paid death benefit, a final paycheck and/or outstanding commission, etc.  Also ask about retirement account information.
  • If your loved one owned a business, contact any partners or co-owners and find out if there is a succession plan.  Locate business documents, such as the articles of incorporation, stock certificates, and tax records.  Contact an attorney for advice on any additional steps to take. The county bar association lawyer referral service for your county can provide a referral to an attorney.  You can reach the Santa Cruz County Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service at (831) 425-4755.  The phone number for the Santa Clara County Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service is (408) 971-6822.
  • Cancel newspapers and any daily subscriptions.
  • Cancel gym memberships, or other memberships for which there is a monthly fee.
  • Take good care of yourself and consider getting additional support as you grieve.   Recovering from the loss of a loved one can take some time.  Take good care of yourself.  If you are feeling overwhelmed by grief or would like additional support, consider grief counseling. 

Hospice of Santa Cruz County offers grief counseling to anyone who has suffered the death of a loved one, whether or not the loved one was receiving hospice services.  Their phone number is 831/430-3000.  Please also see https://www.hospicesantacruz.org/grief-support/.   Kara offers grief counseling and support groups in the Silicon Valley.  You can reach Kara at 650/321-5272, and their website is at www.kara.org. For information on other grief counseling services in Santa Cruz County, please seehttps://www.211santacruzcounty.org/mental-healthx/grief-loss/grief-loss-parent-support-groups/.   A therapist, your doctor, or a member of clergy may also be able to help.

THINGS TO DO LATER (When you can)

  • Take a break.  You have accomplished a lot and have done a great job!
  • Cancel memberships in clubs or other organizations to which your loved one belonged.
  • Alma mater/alumni association.  Notify your loved one’s alma mater or alumni association.
  • Close online accounts, such as social media and e-mail lists.
  • Cancel magazines and other subscriptions.
  • Self-Care.  Continue to take good care of yourself and to get support as needed.
  • Your estate plan.  Make sure your own estate planning is complete.

I hope this list is helpful to you and wish you comfort and peace.


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