What To Do Before and After Somebody Dies

In this episode, Lisa Shoalmire and John Ross discuss several steps to take before and after a loved one passes away.

Episode Transcript
John
Welcome to another episode of Aging Insight. I'm your host, John Ross, here with Lisa Shoalmire, and we're Elder Law attorneys here in the Ark-La-Tex. And we do this program to provide you the kind of information you need in order to age gracefully, age in place, age on your own terms. We want people to know what the future holds, so that they can plan, and when... Because we know that if you plan correctly, if you use the kind of information that we give you right here on this show, you can avoid becoming a burden on your friends and family, you can avoid nursing home care, and you can avoid spending every last dollar paying for yourself as you age.
John
We want you to live your life the way you wanna live it, and that's the whole point of Aging Insight, it's why we're here, and we've got a pretty interesting show for you today. Now, one thing about today's topic, it's not necessarily a happy topic, but one of the facts of life is that we're all gonna leave this world. And doing so gracefully, doing so knowing what needs to be done both before we die and after, that can make your life better, especially your end-of-life, and it can make the transition for those people you leave behind a lot easier. And really, that helps protect and preserve their memories of you. We want those memories to be wonderful, we want your legacy to be a beautiful thing, and we know that that can happen. We just gotta pay attention to a few little things, and so today's program is gonna be about what to do both before and after somebody dies.
Lisa
Yeah, John, if you think about it, our life is this journey. And you can go to the bookstore and there's a ton of guides of What To Expect When You're Expecting or Planning Your Wedding Guides, Vacation Guides, there's all sorts of material about an episode in your life. But what you don't see a lot of is information for families about when you're dealing with an illness and expected end-of-life, sooner than later. And so we wanted to kind of bring you some tips that we have gleaned over the years from working with our clients and our families that have sadly lost someone. But hopefully, our experience can be a good thing for you.
John
Right. One of the most common things that I hear people say is they say, "Oh, well, I've got my will in place. I've got my will in order, so all that's taken care of." Well, yeah, having a will is certainly important in many cases. It's not important in every case, but it is important in some cases. But the fact is is that that will controls the disposition of your property, yet there's a lot of other things that are gonna be necessary. When you're talking about having somebody who you know is going to die, and frankly, we all know, we're going to, the first thing is making sure you know where all of the vital information is. Gathering up things like marriage licenses, birth certificates, military records in particular, those discharge papers, the form DD214, that's your military discharge. Having all of those records in one central location that people can find can be extremely useful because any one of those may be necessary to help you out, or to help out those people you leave behind. So the first thing is gathering up a bunch of your personal information, making sure it's all in one place.
Lisa
Well, John, I've sat with clients before as we were looking to maybe look at some veteran's benefits, or applying for nursing home care, and maybe there's a marriage certificate that we need to get ahold of. And believe it or not, a lot of times, your adult children don't know what county you got married in, they don't know where to even begin to look for a marriage license, and so that's what we're talking about is is making sure that your important papers are all gathered up. Also, these days, so many of our business transactions are taking place online, whether it's online bank statements, online investment account statements, online credit card statements. Also, we have automatic deductions on our bank accounts. So that type of information needs to be written down somewhere, that you're receiving certain statements online at this time, so someone that's coming behind you can figure this out.
John
Yeah. So a list of those usernames, those passwords, those things can be vital in the days both leading up to and the days following somebody's death as you have to deal with things like the utility bills. So make a list of those. Now, if you are listing out all of your usernames and passwords, it needs to be kept secure. So that may be something that needs to go in a locked safe or in a safety deposit box, but speaking of safety deposit boxes, you know how you get into those? With the key. [chuckle] That's right. And so you've got to know where the key is, so don't forget about that safety deposit box key. That is one of those things that somebody might need. They might need to find that key, just to find the access to the other documents that you've left around.
Lisa
Right. And there should probably be some other documents. All of us know that we're on this journey, and so those living wills or advanced directives, which talk about, "If I'm on this last mile of the journey called life, then what sort of artificial life support do I want? What sort of artificial support do I not want," that's what's contained in those type of documents. So we need to make sure that someone in your family or some friend, a trusted friend, knows where to find those documents because those documents do impact you while you're living, and that also includes that Do Not Resuscitate order, which is a medical order that you need to... If you're gonna have one of those, you need to make sure you have it filled out properly so that it can be honored. Should you be at home, receiving care at home, and again, doing things on your terms. Lots of folks would rather be at home during this transition from life to death, and so we want to make sure that happens, but you wanna make sure you have the documents you need so that we don't have an ambulance show up and try to resuscitate you and drag you off to the hospital when that's not what you wanted.
John
That's right. So it's not just a matter of having the documents, but also having them available. You can have them all day long, but if you can't get to them, it doesn't do anybody any good. So keep copies of these things around. If you or a loved one has a DNR in place, put that thing on the refrigerator. The emergency medical people are trained to look on refrigerators to see if those things are around. In our practice, when we do these sort of documents for people, we also have them stored electronically and that way you can pull them up on the internet. You can have access to a 1-800 number where you can call and have them delivered immediately. So there's lots of tools that are out there to help make sure you have these documents in place and available.
Lisa
Well, one of the most stressful times for a family is when that family member that they all love and care about passes away, and there's just nothing like the stress of those moments when that has just occurred and so many things. A lot of times, families have supported that family member and maybe they are aware of the illness, and it was almost like waiting for that event. And when that event occurs, a whole new world opens up and a lot of things have to be done. So we're gonna take a break, and when we come back, we're gonna talk about some of the things you need to do immediately when that loved one passes away.
John
Hi. I'm John Ross, Elder Law attorney and Board Member for the Alzheimer's Alliance, and welcome to Our Place. Our Place is a day program designed to provide rest and relief for the caregivers of people with Alzheimer's and related dementias. Our Place is a safe environment where our friends benefit from socialization in a homelike environment. Alzheimer's is devastating and affects over 17,000 families in our area. To find out how Our Place can benefit you, please visit our website.
John
Welcome back to Aging Insight everybody. I'm your host, John Ross, here with Lisa Shoalmire. And today, we're talking about things that need to be done immediately before and shortly after you lose a loved one. And there's just lots to it, and we wanna make sure you kinda know what to expect, and that way maybe this transition can be a bit easier. So Lisa, we were talking about what happens right at that moment?
Lisa
Yeah, that's right. Some folks may pass in a medical facility like a hospital or a nursing home, and others may be on hospice care or maybe just had a sudden medical crisis at home and passed at home. And so those situations, if you're at a medical facility, a lot of times those facilities have their own protocols as to what takes place. In many ways, you kind of are a bystander while that facility runs through their protocols. However, when we're talking about someone who's died at home, then the first thing we need to do is call... If they're a hospice patient, you call your hospice nurse and advise them that your loved one has passed. If they're not a hospice patient or if you've just had a crisis, then you still call 911 in order to report the death, and then certain law enforcement and officials will come to the home and start the documentation process that you're gonna need later on.
John
Right. Now, one thing about it, if you're calling 911, when you call 911 it's an emergency, and the emergency medical people are trained to come out there and do whatever they think is necessary in order to attempt to resuscitate that person. In many cases, a person may have executed a Do Not Resuscitate, and so when you call 911, you need to let them know that either it's not an emergency, or that the person has a DNR so that the emergency people know what to expect when they get there, that they understand that this is not a crisis, this is not a lifesaving call, this is just a call related to getting the process started relating to making a declaration of death and they will help you with that process.
John
Now, of course, at the same time, you're also gonna be needing to make some arrangements related to transportation of that loved one. This usually is done by funeral homes. And of course if you listen to our first segment, we were talking about communicating, and one of those things you should communicate is what kind of funeral arrangements you want, who you want to handle these things, and if you will take care of some of that, then the people you leave behind will know who to call. Maybe that's in your little folder of information, is, "Here's the funeral home that I wanna use." Maybe you've already made some arrangements, maybe you even paid for those arrangements. But have that information, that way they can call related to transportation of that loved one after death.
Lisa
And so the next thing is, of course, informing family and friends. Now remember, if you're at this stage in the process, you're not gonna have information about when a service is or when a visitation period is. So a lot of times, don't stress yourself out. Call those people close that are gonna be supportive to you and your family and let them know of the passing, but you kind of get two, three, four degrees of separation, and those phone calls can wait. Or better yet, put a daughter-in-law or someone in charge of making some of those phone calls that are that second, third tier away from those closest friends and family.
John
Now, once you get past that initial phase, those first couple of hours, there's still gonna be a number of things that have to be done in the first couple of days. One of the things is writing an obituary. Being able to... Most people... You've seen those obituaries in the newspaper, but when it actually comes time to write one, that can be quite difficult. There are some websites that you can go to where they actually have guides on how to write an obituary. And so if you were to get on the internet, you could probably find some of those guides with a simple search that can help you write those sort of things. The other thing is is that, oftentimes, in this period of days where you've got funeral arrangements that need to be made, you've got a funeral to attend, you've got lots of other stuff going on, there could be a number of periods of time where you're not gonna be home.
Lisa
Right. And so one of the things that you have to do, sad as this may sound, is you wanna secure any valuable personal belongings. There might be a lot of folks in and out of the home in the next several days, either while you're there and just simply not able to be attentive to everything and everyone or you may be gone from the home quite a bit as you're making arrangements and attending funeral home visitations and whatnot. But you want to make sure the home and the property is secure because, believe it or not, there are thieves out there. There are evil-meaning cousins and family members out there that might take advantage of this time.
John
That's right. And if you think about it, you're writing this obituary, and in there, you're saying when and where the funeral arrangements are gonna be, and that way your friends who you just don't remember to contact, maybe they see it and that way they can attend the funeral. But you're also telling the world that you're not gonna be home during that period of time. And unfortunately, we have a society where there are some bad apples out there who will use that information, knowing that nobody's gonna be in that house. So feel free, if you have neighbors that you trust, to contact those neighbors, tell them what's going on, tell them that you're gonna be out of the house, have them keep an eye on it. You could also contact your local police department and explain to them what the situation is, maybe the house is gonna be empty because this was your last parent and so the house... There's nobody gonna be there. Having neighbors, having law enforcement keeping an eye out on the place can certainly help prevent property loss.
Lisa
And a final thing in these few days where things are so upsetting is a lot of times there's a special pet that's in the home, especially a lot of our seniors' little dogs and animals that have just been real great company to them, and it's gonna be a confusing time for that pet. And frankly, sometimes, that pet is not something that the adults and humans are thinking about as they're making these arrangements. So make sure you've considered the needs of that animal that still might be in the house. Again, that neighbor or maybe some other family could take that pet for the next few days until things get sorted out. So when we come back in just a moment, we're gonna talk about, as those days maybe move on into weeks, some other things that you need to be on the lookout for and you may need to do following the death of your family member.
John
Hi, I'm John Ross, Elder Law attorney and Board Member for the Alzheimer's Alliance, and welcome to Our Place. Our Place is a day program designed to provide rest and relief for the caregivers of people with Alzheimer's and related dementias. Our Place is a safe environment where our friends benefit from socialization in a home-like environment. Alzheimer's is devastating and affects over 17,000 families in our area. To find out how Our Place can benefit you, please visit our website.
Lisa
Welcome back to today's edition of Aging Insight. And today, we're dealing with a difficult subject, but one that everyone faces, which is dealing with the death of a loved one and some of the actions that those that are left behind need to take immediately prior and immediately after the passing of that relative. We've talked about making sure you know where documents are, important documents like marriage licenses, insurance, policies, financial information. We've talked about, at the time of that death, securing personal belongings, having friends and neighbors watch the home. And John, what are some other things that people need to be aware of?
John
Now we're moving on into the weeks following that death, and during these next couple of weeks, there's still a number of things that you're gonna wanna do. So for example, we're gonna need to get copies of death certificates. You'll be surprised how many people want a copy of the death certificate. People ask me all the time, "John, how many death certificates should I get?" There's no right answer to that. Ten, 20, 30, depending on the complexity of the person's situation and how many different things they had going on out there, you're just gonna have to use your best judgement. You can always get more if you need to. And for when you have to give them out, see if people will take a copy as opposed to giving them one of the originals.
John
So gather up those sort of things, and then start making contacts. Contact places like the utility companies, if that's necessary, the VA, the Social Security Administration, financial advisors, life insurance companies. All of the people that that person did business with are going to need to know that that person has now passed and that there's gonna be changes in the works, that something else is going on. And a lot of times, this can be pretty confusing, especially if you don't jump on this. One thing we see all the time is social security.
Lisa
That's right. People always have the question of, "My mom passed on the 10th of the month and she had already received her social security check for the month. What's gonna happen there? Or we saw that the money was in the account, so we used all the money in the account to pay for funeral arrangements." Well, social security is one of those things that has typically paid a month in advance. So if you've received that payment, you need to be mindful because social security can in fact auto draft that payment back out of that recipient's account, which if you have checks out there, may leave you to be overdrawn.
John
That's right. So the sooner you can contact these folks, the faster you can address these sort of issues and you can hopefully avoid some bigger problems, for example, with that social security check coming two, or three, or four months in a row. Those can really cause some problems. So...
Lisa
Oh, I was gonna mention one thing is when you... If this is a parent or someone that has died, and now there's not gonna be anyone at that home, you need to get in a change of mail address pretty quickly because it's amazing what comes in the mail that maybe you as the child weren't aware of certain business that your parents were doing, and so that change of address that leaves their mail coming to you is important so you can get ahold of it.
John
Well, and that can also protect the deceased person from identity theft. Actually, one of the fastest growing identify theft crimes out there is stealing the identity of the recently deceased. So getting ahold of that information, that mail can be a big one. Now, my next piece of advice is gonna sound a little bit self-serving, but I promise you, it's worth it. Get the advice, go and have a consultation with somebody who is experienced in estate planning and probate matters, an attorney who knows what they're doing when it comes to these sort of things. Now, I'm not saying go hire an attorney, but what you need is somebody who's been through this with a lot of other families who you can ask questions to and who can provide you guidance. Sometimes you don't even know to ask the question, but somebody who's been there before, somebody who's done it 100 times, 1,000 times can provide a lot of guidance and dispel some of those myths that you might be thinking are reality.
Lisa
That's right. In most attorneys... Or it certainly varies by attorney, but lots of attorneys don't charge an initial fee to come in and just have that conversation. So many families maybe don't even need to go through a probate process, while other families, because of the family dynamics, because of bills that the deceased had, because of property the deceased own, there does need to be a probate process so that everything can be resolved at some point. But you, as a layperson, might not know the difference. What we don't wanna have happen is get years down the road and realize business was not taken take of, and now there's a big problem.
John
Yeah, that's absolutely right. And when you get done talking to the experienced elder law attorney, the next thing you probably should be seeing is an accountant. Oftentimes, most people... In fact, most people have no estate tax, but there can still be some hidden taxes out there with retirement benefits and things like that. So get some good advice, that's probably my last big thing. After somebody dies, get some good advice out there.
Lisa
Yeah, so we certainly realize that this topic can be difficult to really confront, but it's one of those things to where a little pre-planning, some good advice on the front end, can lead you to enjoy the memory of that loved one without getting so tangled up in any details. So that's what we're hoping that you got out of this today.
John
That's right. And so we'll see you next time on Aging Insight.

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