What to do when someone dies.

Dealing with the aftermath of someone’s death can be a challenging and emotional time. People are often anxious to resolve as many issues in the deceased’s estate as possible very quickly, which can sometimes lead to errors that increase the complexity and cost of the estate administration. To avoid compounding grief with added frustration, here are some suggestions for things to do (and not to do) prior to meeting with the estate attorney.

Things you should NOT do before meeting with the estate attorney:

  1. Do not pay the decedent’s bills. Also, avoid incurring large debts or making any major purchases or donations that you expect to be paid or reimbursed by the deceased’s trust or estate. In cases where there may not be enough money, there is a mandatory order for priority of payment. Even if you are confident there will be adequate funds, trusts and estates require accounting of all transactions. The estate attorney will give you instructions on when and how to pay bills so that the accounting process is more efficient.
  2. You should not sort through the deceased’s personal belongings and decide on distribution, donation, or disposal until you have met with the estate attorney.
  3. If the deceased owned a home, you should not make any changes to the decedent’s basic utilities (electric, gas, water) or homeowner’s insurance until after you have discussed it with the estate attorney.
  4. If the decedent owned a home, you should wait to list the house for sale or lease and wait to permit anyone to move in until after you have discussed it with the estate attorney.
  5. If the deceased owned a vehicle, secure it, and continue insurance until you speak with the estate attorney. If it is necessary to use the vehicle, the driver should contact his or her own auto insurance carrier and ensure it will cover any damage or injuries resulting from an accident.
  6. Do not close email accounts. If the deceased had bills or statements delivered by email, you may need access to gather this information or to complete two-factor authentication.

Things you should do before meeting with the estate attorney:

  1. Inform close family members, friends, and relatives about the death.
  2. Arrange for care of dependents and pets.
  3. Secure the deceased’s home. Make sure doors and windows are locked. Take particular care to lock up portable valuables such as expensive jewelry. Take basic steps to avoid spoilage such as cleaning out the refrigerator, checking the thermostat, and watering plants. If the home is unoccupied, you may want to notify your local law enforcement agency or enlist a neighbor to keep an eye out.
  4. If you have access to the deceased’s calendar and contacts, notify their employer and cancel upcoming appointments.
  5. Start gathering information about the deceased that is necessary for the death certificate and obituary such as full legal name, address, date of birth, social security number, and full legal names of parents, spouse, and children.
  6. Work with a Funeral Home or Mortuary. A funeral director will facilitate the lawful disposition of the deceased’s remains and help arrange any funeral or memorial services desired. The funeral director also collects critical data and requests copies of the death certificate. Generally, the funeral director will notify the Social Security Administration of the death, however, the surviving spouse and guardian of any minor children should also contact the SSA to explore any benefits available.
  7. If the deceased was a veteran, report the death to the Veteran’s Administration. There may be funeral or burial benefits available for the veteran. In some circumstances, there may also be benefits available to the spouse or children of the veteran. You will need proof of the veteran’s military service/discharge—look for his or her form DD214 (discharge papers).
  8. Obtain Death Certificates: You will need these for various legal and administrative purposes. A good rule of thumb is to start with 10 and add one copy for each surviving member of the decedent’s immediate family. The deceased’s spouse and children should keep a copy of the death certificate as part of their own permanent records.
  9. Arrange for someone to pick-up the deceased’s mail.
  10. Look for original copies of estate planning documents such as wills or trusts. Contact the person named in any such document to administer the deceased’s affairs. Contact the estate attorney and schedule an appointment. The person named to administer the deceased’s affairs should attend this appointment.
  11. Gather information that will be needed to administer the deceased’s estate.
    • Create a list of the immediate family (both surviving and deceased, regardless of estrangement) and people named in the will or trust. If any of the above predeceased, look for their death certificate or find out the date of death. For those who are surviving, write down full legal names and addresses. The estate attorney will explain the process to administer the will or trust when you meet.
    • Gather account statements, bills, insurance policies, vehicle titles, deeds, and any other document that might be evidence of an asset owned or debt owed by the deceased. Look for lists or password vaults for digital accounts.
    • Keep copies of the deceased’s previous two years of income tax returns and supporting documentation. Write down contact information for the tax preparer.
    • Check the state unclaimed property website and bring any information you find related to the deceased to your meeting with the estate attorney.

Things you might do prior to meeting with the estate attorney:

You can try, but some tasks will require you present a copy of the deceased’s death certificate or proof that you are the person duly authorized to administer the deceased’s estate. Most often, it is easiest to wait until you both have the death certificate and have met with the estate attorney to complete these tasks.

  1. Arrange for mail to be forwarded to the person who will handle the deceased’s affairs.
  2. Contact one of the three major credit reporting agencies and notify them of the death. A certified copy of the death certificate will be required to obtain a permanent credit freeze. This prevents new credit from being issued under the decedent’s social security number.
  3. If the deceased had life insurance, you may contact the company to provide notice of the death and the applicable policy number.
  4. Inform the deceased’s banks, financial advisors, pension providers, and relevant institutions about the death. If the decedent named beneficiaries on these accounts, the beneficiaries will each need to complete a claim form supplied by each bank or company. If the decedent did not name beneficiaries, you should speak with the estate attorney before you attempt to withdraw or spend any money in the account.
  5. Cancel the deceased’s subscriptions, memberships, and other discretionary services. This includes cable/internet, digital services (e.g., Netflix), cell phone service, health insurance, prescription coverage or subscriptions, long term care insurance. Request refunds of any prepaid services. Do not cancel any insurance policies covering the deceased’s home or other property.
  6. Cancel credit cards of the deceased. If interest or penalties accumulated during the deceased’s final illness or after death, request that the company waive them.
  7. Submit the deceased’s passport to the U.S. Department of State for cancellation.
  8. Submit the deceased’s driver’s license or state identification, license plates, and disability placards (if any) to the Department of Motor Vehicles for cancellation.
  9. Contact the deceased’s local election office to cancel voter registration.
  10. Delete or memorialize social media accounts.


Lastly, the death of a loved one is a major life event and may trigger a need for updates to your own estate planning. Contact your own attorney to review existing planning or create a plan if you have not done so before. It is possible you will use the estate attorney for both your planning and the deceased’s estate administration; however, it should be a separate engagement.


The information contained on this website is intended as an overview on subjects related to the practice of law. Each individual case is different, and laws do change, so please be aware that the circumstances and outcomes described may not apply to all cases and should not be interpreted as legal counsel. Please seek the advice of an attorney before making any decision related to legal issues.