A Guide To Your Financial & Legal Responsibilities After Loss

Loss of a loved one is a difficult time to navigate. Learn how to obtain a death certificate, when to begin reporting the death and more.

Key takeaways:

  • Grief is a natural part of losing a loved one. Having an after-death checklist can take a tremendous burden off your shoulders when it comes time to execute final wishes.
  • Besides making funeral arrangements, you will have to determine if there was a will, report the death to various entities and close financial accounts.
  • You will need certified copies of death certificates to claim the deceased person’s assets, including life insurance policies and brokerage accounts.

Everyone experiences loss at one point or another in life. It’s natural. However, many people underestimate the amount of paperwork involved to settle their loved one’s affairs. From making funeral arrangements to obtaining death certificates, the process can be stressful if you don’t know where to start.

Having a plan in place can help you better navigate this difficult time. You should also reach out to family members and consider obtaining the help of lawyers and certified public accountants (CPAs) to ensure you don’t have to handle everything on your own.

We’ve put together a checklist to help you prioritize your tasks and delegate where needed.

After-Death Checklist: A Guide To Managing Your Loved Ones Death

It can be overwhelming trying to figure out what to do when a loved one dies. Having an after-death checklist can lessen the burden.

Here are some key steps to consider when a loved one dies:

  • Acquire a pronouncement of death
  • Alert friends and family
  • Implement burial plans (based on will or last wishes)
  • Report death to Social Security and other government agencies
  • Obtain certified copies of death certificate
  • Identify all assets and liabilities
  • File insurance claims
  • Determine if there was a will
  • Close bank and brokerage accounts
  • Send copies of death certificate to major credit agencies
  • Terminate memberships and subscriptions that are not in use
  • Terminate health insurance policies
  • Settle a loved one’s outstanding financial debts
  • Notify election office of death

Remember that timing may vary depending on your circumstances. If this was an unexpected death, it may take longer to access all the required information to begin the final arrangements. This is another reason why planning early is important.

Immediately Following The Death Of A Loved One

The first task on your list will be to obtain a legal pronouncement of death. If your loved one died in a hospital, a staff member will provide you with a pronouncement of death form.

The process is different for deaths that occur in the home. You will need to call a medical professional to pronounce them deceased.

Next, you want to alert friends and family of the death. Send out text messages or share on social media to spread the word. Remember to take a careful approach during this step. Use your judgment to determine the best way of informing those who need to know.

What To Do Within The First Week Of Losing A Loved One

The first week can be a whirlwind of emotions and roadblocks without a proper plan in place. Here are some steps you can take to better manage your priorities.

Make funeral arrangements
Your loved one may have recommended what they wish for their last requests. This may include burial and estate planning. Contact their funeral home, make the burial arrangements and determine if there was a prepaid burial plan in place.

If your loved one did not share their last wishes, it might be best to reach out to close family or friends for assistance. Research funeral prices and outline the expected costs. Then, determine how you will pay for the funeral. The Department of Veterans Affairs offers burial benefits for qualified individuals.

Report death to Social Security and other government agencies
The funeral home usually reports a person’s death. If you need to report it yourself, you’ll need to call the Social Security office at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778).

Obtain certified copies of death certificate
You can contact the Vital Records office of the state where your loved one died to obtain copies of the death certificate. You’ll need the certified death certificate to file insurance claims and access bank accounts. You can request at least 5-10 copies of the death certificate. It all depends on the number of assets that your loved one held.

Identify all assets and liabilities
You typically need certified copies of the death certificate to claim assets that may be in your loved one’s name. Here are a few types of assets that you may need to inquire about:

  • Deeds and titles
  • Insurance policies
  • Safety deposit boxes
  • Brokerage accounts
  • Employer benefits
  • Retirement assets

You probably won’t be responsible for any outstanding debt that your loved one left behind. If you co-signed on any type of asset or debt that has gone unpaid, you may be responsible. Many in the family mistake debt as “inherited” when this is not always the case. Money from the estate is used to pay the debt. State laws on inheriting debt may vary, but liabilities commonly go unpaid if there isn’t enough from the estate to pay the debt.

File insurance claims
Reach out to your loved one’s life insurance provider to submit a claim. Here’s the standard process:

  • Contact the insurance company and inform them about the death.
  • The insurance provider will send a packet of forms and instructions to follow.
  • Submit the death certificate and completed forms.
  • The insurer usually pays claims within 30 to 60 days of receiving all requested information.

Determine if there was a will
A will can help you determine how assets should be allocated. It can also help you manage any other requests that your loved one may have had. This includes identifying the executor of your loved one’s estate. The executor is the person appointed to carry out the instructions of the will.

Here are some items to consider:

  • An executor files the will with the probate court. You can consult with an estate attorney for guidance. An executor typically has a limited number of dates to submit this. Check with your probate court for more information.
  • Wills become public record once they have been processed through the County Clerk’s office.
  • The executor must notify the appropriate authorities about the death.

If your loved one died without a will, your state law will determine how assets are managed.

Within The First Month Of Losing A Loved One

There are steps of action that should be taken within the first month following the loss of a loved one. These can vary, depending on how much was prepared initially and where the loved one passed. However, this is a great baseline to follow if you’re unsure.

Close bank and brokerage accounts.
Identify all financial accounts in your loved one’s name. Notify the institutions about the death and provide a certified copy of the death certificate. They will release the funds to the beneficiaries on the account.

Send copies of the death certificate to major credit agencies.
The three major credit-reporting agencies in the U.S. are Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Report your loved one’s death to the credit agencies to prevent any fraudulent activity. You can find their contact information by visiting the Federal Trade Commission’s consumer information.

Terminate memberships and subscriptions that are not in use.
Check mail, email and bank statements to identify gym memberships or digital subscriptions that need to be canceled. Have account or member ID numbers handy to expedite the process.

Terminate health insurance policies.
If you haven’t already, now is the time to file a claim with your health insurance to ensure the policy has been closed upon the death of a loved one. Contacting the insurance agency should be the best way to get in contact with the claims department and start this process.

Settling a loved one’s outstanding financial debts.
Repaying debts falls on the deceased person’s estate. This is not the responsibility of a particular family member. However, the executor or power of attorney is responsible for paying these debts using money from the estate. This is done by selling assets or using any other funds provided by the estate.

Notify the election office of death.
Notifying the election office of a death does not fall on you directly, as a family member of the deceased. Once you’ve filed for a death certificate, this record is then used to remove deceased participants from the voter registration list.

Who Gets The $255 Social Security Death Benefit?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) provides a lump-sum payout of $255 to qualified individuals following the death of a loved one. In order to receive this benefit, you must first apply by calling the Social Security office at 800-772-1213. The following individuals may qualify if they meet criteria outlined by the SSA:

  • Surviving spouse
  • A widow
  • A surviving divorced spouse
  • An eligible child

What Happens To A Person’s Estate After They Die?

If your loved one has an estate plan, it can save you or a loved one from financial loss or litigation on settling an estate. The estate plan helps families determine what happens after a loved one dies. It typically includes the following items:

  • Will
  • Executor
  • Healthcare directives
  • Beneficiary designations

If there is no estate plan, you’ll need to consult state law for details on who receives assets. Generally, it passes to parents, spouse, children or other relatives.

The Bottom Line

Saying goodbye to a loved one is difficult enough without the stress of sorting through paperwork. The best course of action is to identify the most important steps in the process and move forward from there. Take time to review wills, estate plans and life insurance policies. Don’t forget to seek out help and use the resources available to you. Consult family members and experts to avoid managing the process on your own.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Where to Write for Vital Records.

Federal Trade Commission consumer information. (2021). Free credit reports.

National Conference of State Legislatures. (2021). Voter registration list maintenance

Social Security Administration. (2021). If you are the survivor.

USA.gov. (2021). Find my state or local election office website.

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