The Steps to Take When a Spouse or a Parent Passes Away

The Steps to Take When a Spouse or a Parent Passes Away

When a spouse or parent dies, you may face overwhelming responsibilities, all while dealing with the shock and grief over your loss. There are a great number of things you’ll need to attend to in order to ensure your loved one’s personal affairs are settled. The best piece of advice I can give you is this:

Don’t try to do it all yourself.

When someone faces the death of a spouse or parent, family and friends often ask, “What can I do to help?” These are not empty platitudes. Helping you is a way for them to work through their grief and show you they love you. Let them help. Delegate tasks that are within their power to do.

Before you can do this though, you need to know what tasks need to be done. I’ve broken these tasks down into easy pieces so you can do what is in your power to do, and delegate the rest.

Things To Do Right Away

  1. Coordinate Organ Donation. If there is an advance care directive (or living will or health care proxy) included in your loved one’s estate plan and your spouse or parent has opted to donate their organs, then time is of the essence to arrange for the donation. In California, a person may also choose to donate their organs when they apply for a drivers license. If your loved one died in a hospital or nursing home, then the staff can handle the arrangements for you. If your loved one died at home, call the nearest hospital.
  2. Locate Estate Planning Documents. If your spouse or parent has created an estate-plan, there should be detailed instructions regarding how they would like their body to be treated, how they would like to be memorialized, and what should be done with their property. Estate planning documents, like wills and trusts, are typically kept with other important paperwork. If the estate-plan was drafted with the help of an attorney, the attorney will often have a copy of these documents in their care. If there is no estate-plan, you and your family members will have to make some important decisions, based on what you believe your spouse or parent would have wanted.
  3. Contact Family and Close Friends. Once you have communicated with your close family and friends, delegate the notification of extended family and friends to another family or friend so that you can focus on other things. If you are not aware of the location of your loved one’s estate planning documents, another family member may be able to identify its location and help you make important decisions.
  4. Choose a Funeral Home. If this is not done by your loved one in advance, do some research into homes other family or friends have used in the area. The funeral home is typically responsible for transporting your loved one’s body from the hospital or home to their facility.
  5. Secure Valuable Property. If a spouse dies, this is often less relevant than when a parent dies. You will want to ensure their home and cars are locked and any pets taken care of. Consider having all mail forwarded to a responsible party so that important bills and documents are not missed.

Things To Do Before the Funeral

  1. Begin Funeral Preparations. In addition to consulting your loved one’s estate planning documents, consult with key family members on funeral preparations, especially if there are unreasonable requests made in the estate-plan. The reality is, funerals, memorial services, and celebrations of life are the spaces we create to help the living say goodbye and work through their grief. So consider what your spouse or parent would have wanted, but also keep in mind what is realistic, what you can afford and what will help you and your family through this time.
  2. Inquire About Financial Assistance. If your spouse or parent was a veteran, there are benefits available for burial services. Contact the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. Other types of financial assistance may be available from a local church, union, or other organization that your loved one may have belonged to.
  3. Plan Post-Funeral Gathering. While this is not a requirement, a post-funeral gathering is a common way for people to pay their respects and memorialize the deceased. This is a good step to enlist the help of friends and family.
  4. Prepare and Publish Obituary. Some people write their own obituary. If your loved one did not write their own obituary, discuss this step with close family and friends to decide what will go into the obituary. Check with your local newspaper regarding formatting, publishing deadlines and prices. This is also a good way to spread the word about funeral services.

Things To Do After the Funeral

  1. Get Certified Copies of Death Certificate. This document will be required by the courts, financial institutions, and others in settling your spouse or parent’s affairs. Your funeral director can often assist in this process, or you can contact your local office of vital statistics.
  2. Notify Government Agencies. Regardless of the size of your loved one’s estate, you must notify the courts that your loved one has passed, along with the Social Security Office, and Medicare (if applicable).
  3. Notify Insurance Companies, Your Estate Planning Attorney, Financial Advisors, and Creditors. If your spouse or parent had a life insurance policy, you must make a claim in order to receive the benefits. Additionally, before your loved one’s estate can be settled, all creditors must be paid. However, before making any payments, it’s a good idea to talk with an estate planning attorney to confirm the debt is valid and payable. Death always comes with financial consequences, so be sure to alert your financial advisors, as they can be extremely helpful in making sure the estate is settled smoothly. Close all credit accounts. Prepare final tax return.
  4. Cancel Accounts. This is where things can often get overwhelming. From email and social media accounts to drivers licenses, gym memberships, and magazine subscriptions, you will want to keep track of these to avoid excess payments and the potential for identity theft. Don’t forget to notify credit agencies and your voter registrar.

The Best Way to Say “I Love You”

When you die with an estate-plan in place, many of the decisions that your loved ones would have had to make are already handled. This means far less stress and anxiety for the survivors and can often reduce the incidence of family division following the death.  

Estate Planning in California

When someone dies in California, the estate is either placed into probate or estate administration. Property that is not properly placed in a trust must go through the probate process. Regardless of whether an estate goes through probate, having the support and experience of an estate planning attorney can make the process less stressful and take less time.


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