Death in the Family: 12 Things to Do Now

grasping elderly hands

Last Updated Sep 2, 2009 4:08 PM EDT

The death of a loved one imposes cruel demands on the closest survivors. You, more than anyone, need time and space to handle your emotions, gather your thoughts and say goodbye. And yet demands are suddenly coming from all sides. You need to make quick decisions, from funeral flowers to financial matters, from how to feed out-of-town guests to what to say in the obituary.



To guide you through this frenetic, unreal time, we’ve put together a clip-and-save list of basic tasks. Click on the PDF icon above to get a version of this story you can print and save. We hope you won’t need it any time soon. But if the time comes, we hope it helps.

General To-Do List

  • Call a funeral director

This pro will lead you through the myriad choices before and during the funeral: type of service and casket, whether there’ll be a viewing, etc. FuneralWise.com has a detailed planning guide.

  • Contact close friends and family

Call the key people and ask them to spread the word for you.

  • Make burial arrangements

You may need to buy a plot or space in a mausoleum. If the person wished to be cremated, you’ll have to arrange for the ashes to be interred or scattered.

  • Write an obituary

The funeral director may be able to help — or actually write it, if you prefer. If the person lived in more than one city, you’ll want to place an obituary in a paper in each place. And yes, there’s a Web site with advice on writing obits: Obituaryguide.com.

  • Plan a reception (optional)

After a funeral and burial service, people often gather to celebrate the life of the deceased. If you’ll be hosting this, call a local caterer who can pull together something appropriate on short notice. Better yet: Put a responsible friend in charge.

Financial To-Do List

If you’re the executor of someone’s estate, you have a long list of additional responsibilities. And even if you’re not the executor, the executor may need your help. Here are the basics.

  • Find the will

You need the original; the court won’t accept a copy. Then you’ll have to register the will at the local probate office.

  • Make like an accountant

That is, locate all the essential information about your loved one’s assets and liabilities: insurance policies, bank accounts, retirement accounts, investments and loans. You’ll need all these to manage upcoming transactions and to notify the financial providers.

  • Contact the person’s employer

This will help you handle retirement plan distributions, employer-purchased insurance payouts and ensure that any vacation pay due goes to beneficiaries.

  • Watch the mail

Something will eventually arrive about an account or loan the deceased had, even ones he never told anyone about, says Sid Blum, a financial planner in Evanston, Ill. “There may be assets that aren’t even known to the family,” he says. Cancel magazine subscriptions, catalogs, and anything else arriving by mail regularly.

  • Pay the bills

Make sure you’ve arranged to wrap up any outstanding liabilities: the monthly utility bill, the mortgage, credit card bills, car loans, etc.

  • File tax returns

You will eventually have to send in federal and state income tax returns and possibly estate tax returns. A federal estate-tax filing is required for estates with combined gross assets and prior taxable gifts exceeding $3.5 million. Typically, this is due within nine months of the death. State estate tax rules vary.

  • Consult an attorney

If you’re not comfortable handling an estate, you may want to bring in an estate attorney. At the very least, check in with one after you’ve completed what you can. (Financial planner Jonathan Pond, of Newton, Mass., also has published an excellent, exhaustive checklist for executors.) “I’d recommend just saying ‘Hey, this is what I’ve done, here’s where I’m at, am I missing anything?’” says Diane Park, a financial planner in Minneapolis. “That might take just an hour or two of an attorney’s time.”

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  • Kate Ashford

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