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Fact Sheet

Medical and financial decisions after someone dies


Making decisions after someone has died

Losing someone is really hard. In the time just after the loss, people might react strangely because they’re experiencing many emotions, like sadness or anger. For this reason, tensions might be high when decisions related to the death are being made.

If you were close to the person who passed away, you might have to make some tough decisions immediately after the death. For example, you might have to organize funeral arrangements or decide what to do with the person’s belongings.  Making these decisions can be stressful, and you may be tempted to make a decision quickly without thinking about all the consequences. Every decision you make will have benefits and drawbacks, and it can be hard to work out the right thing to do.

If possible, delay any major decisions, and speak to someone who is farther removed from the decision and its impact to get an objective view point.

There’s no need to take immediate action after someone dies. Give yourself a moment to clear your head and begin the grieving process. It’s important that while you’re working through the practical issues related to a death, you also take care of yourself emotionally and physically. 

Final medical decisions

After your loved one dies, a medical professional like a doctor or nurse will need to “pronounce” the death by certifying the time, date, place and cause of death. This is necessary because you’ll need a death certificate to proceed through legal matters—like life insurance and the will.

If the cause of death is unknown, a doctor might ask if you’d like an autopsy to be performed on your loved one. This is a medical procedure that can be performed to determine why your loved one died. Some religions don’t condone autopsies, though, so make sure you consider this in the process. It’s also a good idea to determine if your loved one wanted to donate his or her organs after death. This may be trickier to sort out, but many people have a spot on their drivers’ licenses that indicates whether they’d like to be an organ donor.

Funeral arrangements

When you and others close to the person who’s died are ready, your loved one’s body will need to be moved from the place where he or she died to a funeral home. If the person died in a hospital, nursing home or hospice, this can be arranged through the facility. If your loved one died at home, you should contact a funeral home.

Funerals are special services to honor a person who has died. They’re unique to a person’s life and culture, and can take on many forms. It might be that your loved one discussed funeral arrangements with you before he or she passed away, but if this isn’t the case, you can decide what kind of service should be performed with the director of a funeral home and other people close to the person who’s died.

Belongings

It might be tempting in the initial shock to get rid of, or give away, all the person’s belongings because it hurts to see them. These belongings can be comforting later, and it may be wise to keep some of the things that are special to you or were important to the person who died.

Giving away belongings, at an appropriate time, is also a healthy part of grieving. It may help you say goodbye to your loved one.

Wills

Many people write wills—which are legal documents outlining how their belongings should be divided after they die. Wills can include mentions of a person’s “estate,” or all of his or her possessions, including money, jewelry, clothing, stock, land and home. For some period of time after the death, your loved one’s estate will go into probate. This means that the will cannot be carried out until the person’s debts have been paid with money from the estate.

Living will and power of attorney

A living will is different from a written will, even though they sound very similar. A living will is actually a document that summarizes the medical treatment a person wants to avoid or receive if he or she is unconscious and can’t speak to his or her caregivers. For example, a person might decide that he or she doesn’t want to be kept on life support after a certain length of time. This would be noted in a living will.

A power of attorney is related to a living will, but in this case, someone sick or injured appoints a designated “power of attorney” to make health care-related decisions for him or her.

Once you’ve settled the practical matters surrounding a death and begun the grieving process, you might have to start thinking about returning to work or school. For more information on how to make this transition, check out the After someone dies: Moving back into your routine fact sheet.

Acknowledgments:

Some of the information is adapted from the book After Suicide, Help For The Bereaved, by Sheila Clark. Published in 1995 by Hill of Content Publishing Company Pty Ltd, Melbourne 3000.

Additional information in this fact sheet was also provided by:

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Library of Medicine

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

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