In the immediate minutes and hours after your loved one passes away, you do not need to do anything. It is okay to sit with your loved one for a while, even if your family member died in a hospital. Just let the hospital staff know if you need a little time or if there are any religious rituals or customs that you would like to observe before your loved one’s body is moved. It is important to give yourself time to call your pastor, priest, rabbi, or other religious advisors, as well as close family members or friends whose presence will be comforting.
Note: One exception is if your loved one wanted to be an organ donor. In this case, the hospital where the death occurred, or if the death occurred at home, a nearby hospital, should be notified almost immediately so the appropriate steps can be taken. If you are not sure, check your family member’s driver’s license or health care directives. Even if your loved one has signed up for organ donation in a state or national registry, family members are responsible for making a final decision if a doctor lets you know that your loved one’s organs are medically suitable for donation.
- As soon as you can, you should obtain a legal pronouncement of death by a doctor or hospice nurse. If no one is present who can make an official pronouncement of death, the body may be taken to the emergency room where a doctor can make the declaration. Barring the need for further medical examination or autopsy, a declaration will enable a death certificate to be prepared. A death certificate is a legal form that you must obtain before some of the later steps can be taken.
- Make arrangements for the body to be picked up, typically by a funeral home. If your loved one died in a hospital or nursing facility, the staff may be able to make those arrangements for you. Your loved one may have already chosen a funeral home and made funeral plans, but if not, the choice of a funeral home will be made by family members.
- If necessary, arrange for care for any dependent children, adults, and pets in accordance with your loved one’s will or nomination of guardian, which should address those issues. If there was no will or guardianship nomination, you may have to request that a court issue an emergency order to ensure that any children or dependent adults are properly cared for and protected.
- Make arrangements to lock up your loved one’s house and car, and if the home will remain vacant, notify the police or the landlord to keep a closer eye on it. A friend or family could also regularly check for mail or phone messages, clean out perishable food, and water plants.
- Find out if your loved one made pre-arrangements for a funeral or memorial service, and if not, ask a family member or friend to help you make those arrangements. If your family member was a member of the military, let the funeral home know if you would like a military funeral and it can make those arrangements. Also, prepare an obituary and send it to the local newspaper and any other newspapers in which you would like for it to appear.
Once you’ve taken care of these initial concerns, it is time to begin the estate or trust settlement process–also called probate or trust administration. Although taking care of some aspects of administration on your own may seem simple, this process can actually be quite complex, and small mistakes can lead to a major headache down the road. It is important to contact an experienced probate and trust administration attorney to help you with the process, as well as any other legal matters that may arise during this difficult and emotional time. Contact your estate planning attorney as soon as you can, and she will help guide you through the legal process so you and your family members can focus on moving through grief toward healing.