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What to Do When Someone Dies At Home

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: A friend and I, both in our late 70s, were discussing what to do if we found our spouse died unexpectedly at home during the night.  It is our understanding that  paramedics will not respond if the person is deceased. Who should we call?  Neither of us could come up with the answer.  Perhaps you can help.  

Answer: Thank you for raising a question most people want to avoid.  Here is some information addressing your question plus a little more.

The first step is to determine whether or not the individual is deceased. Response from paramedics may depend on where you live.  In most places, paramedics will come to your residence and determine whether the person can be revived.  Police will accompany them.

Since procedures vary, consider calling paramedics in your community and ask them how they would respond to such a phone call.

Now let’s take the conversation to some next steps; some are immediate while others can occur later:

  • Contact your family and those with whom you are very close.   If the deceased was religious, call your pastor, priest, rabbi or other religious leader for guidance.  Notify your attending doctor who needs to sign a death certificate and cause of death.
  • Look for instructions the deceased may have left about his or her preferences for funeral or burial arrangements.  Contact a funeral home for burial or cremation arrangements.
  • Contact family, friends, work colleagues, volunteer associates and others who would want to know about the person’s death.  Ask friends or family members to help make the calls.  This is a task you can delegate, and  your telephone book would be a good beginning source.
  • Write an obituary for your local newspaper.  You might ask a close friend to do this.
  • When attending the funeral or memorial service, arrange for someone to remain in your residence while you and your family are away.  Unfortunately, predators read obituary columns and time their robberies to coincide with the funeral time.

The next set of responsibilities is administrative:

  • Contact the Social Security Administration within a month to avoid any hassles. Also contact other government or benefit programs that are making payments to the deceased.
  • Medicaid or hospice should be notified.
  • Review the deceased’s financial affairs and locate estate planning documents such as wills and trusts.
  • Locate funeral and burial plans, safe deposit agreements and keys, nuptial agreements, life insurance policies, existence of a trust, pension-retirement benefits, old tax returns, marriage and birth certificates, divorce documentation and computer records regarding a business or personal assets.  There’s more:  bank statements and checkbooks; notes receivable; leases, securities; documentation of business ownership or interest; health insurance; and unpaid bills.
  • If the deceased belonged to a union, investigate union death benefits as well as veteran burial allowances and other benefits.
  • If the deceased was working, contact the employer’s human resources department for information about employee benefits, accrued vacation pay, death benefits, deferred compensation and medical reimbursements.
  • Also investigate refunds on insurance and information about Keogh and IRA accounts.
  • Meet with your attorney and CPA to discuss estate, tax and accounting matters.
  • Meet with your life insurance agent to collect proceeds or consideration of other options.
  • Review credit cards and cancel as appropriate. Note: Do not pay any of the deceased’s debts until an attorney discusses it with you, the family or the executor.

This list of action steps is not comprehensive. Guides and tools exist to help with this process. The only problem is that people typically don’t use them until the moment of need,  and that moment is usually filled with grief, shock and even despair – not the best time to consume new information.

So plan ahead — consider gathering the relevant information before the moment of exit.

For more information, go to the site search box above and type in “Checklist: Things to do When a Person Dies.”

Thank you for your good question.  I am going to insert your question and this column into my “futures” folder.  Hope others will do the same.

Copyright 2010 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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