What Are The Most Important Steps I Need To Take After The Death Of A Loved One?

William Sweeney

As a probate attorney, I'm often asked, "What are the most important steps I need to take after the death of a loved one?" While there are undoubtedly a ton of things to do in the days and weeks following a loved one's passing, I like to advise families to start with the personal aspects of the death and then specific tasks that will help them get a grip on closing out an estate. These steps will help to avoid oversights and give families the time they need to grieve, instead drowning in paperwork and government red tape:

Step 1: Contact Family and Friends.

Arrange a gathering for family and friends. Regardless of cremation or funeral it is essential for people to come together and grieve, reminisce and even laugh. If you need to get a babysitter do so. Get help with everyday activities such as cleaning, answering the door, going to the store, and answering the door or phone. Arrange hospitality for visiting relatives and friends with food and drinks. Ask family and friends to bring by some food and drinks. If you would feel better having someone stay with you ask them to stay the night, or ask to stay at their home. Your family and friends will want to help in any way that they can.

Step 2: Plan the Arrangements.

Choose the funeral home and speak with the funeral director. The funeral director can help you with a recently departed packet they will have on hand. This will help you prepare for the funeral. The funeral director will help you set up the time and location of the funeral ceremony, get a death certificate for you (you will need at least ten copies). The funeral director can also get in touch with the Social Security Administration to help you get benefits. Funeral directors are there to help, so if you need anything just ask. Some of the information to finalize the State Vital statistic necessities are:

  • Birth Date
  • Birthplace
  • Father's Name
  • Mother's Name
  • Social Security Number
  • Veteran's Claim Number or Discharge Number
  • Education
  • Marital Status

Step 3: Gather obituary information. Obituary information includes age, place of birth, cause of death, occupation, college degrees, memberships held, military service, outstanding work, and a list of survivors in immediate family. Give the time and place of the services. The funeral home will normally write an article and submit it to local newspapers (newspapers will accept a picture of your choice and it will be returned intact). You may also want to list where gifts can be sent: church, charity, school, hospice, or library.

Step 4: Compile Necessary Paper Work. You will need to amass all of your loved one's necessary paperwork. This includes:

  • Certified copies of the death certificate. A certified copy of your loved one's death certificate can typically be ordered from the funeral home. A death certificate is needed to close account or handle some paper work on behalf of the deceased. It is also needed to collect on any insurance. You will need this death certificate to claim social security benefits, transfer property and handle any other financial affairs.
  • Birth certificates of dependent children
  • Military discharge papers
  • A marriage license or certificate
  • Recent copies of Federal tax returns

You will need these papers in order to file for benefits.

Contact the insurance company with which your loved one had a policy in order to file for benefits. While this might be a difficult time to think about finances, it is important to get this one done to relieve some of the financial burdens of death.

Try to find what the wishes of your loved one were. Cremation or burial, along with specific instructions on where and how can be left. Family and friends may be able to help if there isn't a clear indicator.

Notify any accounts receivables, utility, landlord, phone company, creditors, and banks. Contact the post office to tell them of the death as well so they can stop sending mail. Collect any and all unpaid bills and contact them to see if there is any life insurance coverage. Consult with your financial advisor about all outstanding bills.

The Funeral Director will prepare Social Security Form SSA 721. Check with Social Security to make sure that the number is retired.

Step 5: Secure All Property. One of the first things I advise families to do is to secure any property included in your loved one's estate. This means immediately removing valuables and locking everything up tight (including garages and sheds!) to keep the property safe from criminals or vandals. This will also prevent other family members from picking through your loved one's assets before the proper time.

Step 6: Freeze Financial Accounts- You'll want to take an inventory of your loved one's financial affairs as soon as possible following his or her passing. Essentially you'll want to make sure all automatic debits are stopped and a freeze is placed on all bank accounts and credit cards that are not jointly owned. It's also a good idea to stop any automatic deposits scheduled to hit the bank account before you officially close it out.

Step 7: Locate Estate Planning Documents and Contact a Probate Attorney- 99.9 % of the time, families will need to contact a probate attorney immediately following the death of a loved one. That's because the administration of your loved one's estate will depend on the legal documents he or she had in place at the time of death. So for example, if your loved one did not have a will or only had a will in place, you will need an attorney to assist you in filing with the probate court. If your loved one had a trust in place, you may avoid the court process, but will still need to contact an attorney to ensure the trust is administered properly and all expenses of the estate are paid.

Step 8: Relocate Abandoned Pets- If a loved one died leaving pets alone in the house, you should immediately take steps to place the animals with another family member, friend or local shelter. You may also want to contact your loved one's attorney to find out if they had legal plans in place (such as a pet trust) to care for their beloved friends upon their passing.

Step 9: Contact Social Security- Social security must be notified following the death of a loved one. You should call them at 1-800-772-1213. Benefits will be stopped upon notification and you can also inquire about surviving benefits for a spouse or child.

Step 10: Open Benefit Claims- If your loved one had life insurance or was entitled to death benefits from his or her place of employment, union or civic organization, you must contact such organizations in the days and weeks following your loved one's death to start your claims.

Step 11: Consider long-term care for the surviving spouse- If your loved one left behind a surviving spouse who is elderly and unable to live alone, consideration should immediately be given to his or her long-term care. This may range from moving in with another relative to hiring round-the-clock in-home health aides. Nursing home care may also be required in this situation, to which I'd advise you to consult with an Elder Law lawyer to discuss potential ways to protect your loved one's assets before making such a move.


I will spend time with you to answer your questions concerning California probate and Riverside and San Bernardino County probate rules and procedures. For more information, call 800-575-9610 or fill out my online contact form.