Coping with the loss of a loved one is a difficult and emotional time. We hope that the information provided will help you focus on what you need to do and what you may wish to delegate to friends and family.
Pronouncement of Death
Massachusetts law requires a qualified medical professional to be notified and to make the official pronouncement of death.
Who to Call. If the death occurs at home, call the decedent’s physician. The physician may come to the home and pronounce the death; but more likely, you will be told to call 911. They will send out police and an ambulance to pick up the deceased and bring him or her to the hospital, where the death will be pronounced.
Notify Family and Friends. You may want to ask them to help you with some tasks, including notification of other family and friends to save yourself some time on the phone during a stressful period. You will find that many of your family and friends want to help you somehow – and this is a task that they can perform for you. The Red Cross will help notify family members if the deceased was in the military or if the relative to be notified is in the military.
Arrangements for the Deceased Person’s Body. Arrange for the body to be picked up either (1) according to the Coroner’s instructions, (2) according to the instructions from a training hospital if the body or organs are donated, (3) by the mortuary chosen for the funeral (NOTE: Federal law requires price information to be given over the phone), or (4) by the crematory if you are going to cremate the body.
One to Three Days
Deceased’s Instructions. Look through the decedent’s papers to find if he or she (1) had a pre-paid burial plan, (2) wished to donate organs or tissues, (3) belonged to a burial or memorial society that may make special arrangements for the funeral, such as military honor guards, or (4) had written instructions regarding his/her preferences for funeral and burial arrangements.
If the deceased had made prior arrangements for the burial or cremation of his or her body, contact the funeral home which has the prepaid burial plan or the memorial society. They can help you.
Complete the Funeral and Burial Arrangements. Contact the funeral home to make funeral and burial arrangements. Arrangements may include transfer to another location, burial or cremation. You may ask a clergy member to assist you.
Obituary. Get the costs and requirements for publishing an obituary in the newspaper.
Secure Decedent’s Property. You should determine whether any of the decedent’s property needs to be safeguarded, such as a vacant house, motor vehicle, etc. Arrangements should also be made for any pets to be boarded or have care at home.
Financial Assistance. If the deceased was receiving public assistance, burial assistance may be available. Contact your local Department of Social Services. Total expenses of burial will be limited to qualify for the benefit so investigate this possibility before contracting for funeral arrangements.
If the deceased was in the military or is the spouse or dependent child of a person in the military, contact the VA cemetery of VA office. There may be burial benefits.
Contact fraternal and religious organizations that may conduct funeral services and other organizations of which the deceased was a member.
One to Ten Days after Death
Death Certificates. The most common and quickest way to obtain death certificates is through the funeral director. The cost is usually $10-$15 per certificate. In order to know how many to order, you should estimate the number of different assets held by the deceased or institutions that will require a death certificate. A death certificate is required for the probate court and if the deceased owned property, one must be filed at the registry of deeds where the property is located. If you do not order enough, you can get more death certificates later from the town where the deceased lived or through the Massachusetts Registry of Vital Records and Statistics.
Search for the Will and Other Important Papers. The original will is often in a safe deposit box, in the attorney’s office, or in a file at home. Check for a strong box or file cabinet. If you are only able to find a copy of the signed will, it may be possible to offer it to probate. However, the signed original will is preferable.
Gather other important papers, such as deeds, business agreements, tax returns, bank accounts, earnings statements, birth and marriage certificates, military discharge papers, Social Security Number, vehicle registration, loan payment books, bills, and any other important papers pertaining to your loved one’s affairs. You’ll need these to file a final tax return and settle the estate. You may want to consult an attorney and an accountant.
Entering a Safe Deposit Box. Only a person whose name is also on the safe deposit box may enter it at any time. Having the key to the safe deposit box is not enough. An agent under power of attorney also does not have authority to enter the box because the agency relationship ends at the deceased’s death. An heir or beneficiary named in a will generally can ask the bank to enter the box to search for the will, a deed to a burial plot or burial instructions. A representative of the bank may open the box in the presence of the heir or beneficiary and remove any will that is found. However, any other assets in the safety deposit box cannot be removed until a personal representative is appointed.
Take Care against Unethical Persons. In the period following the loss of a loved one, be careful before accepting any telephone or mail solicitation. There are people who look for death notices and make unfounded claims against the deceased. Fraudulent invoices may be received and should be carefully scrutinized for validity. Some people may also attempt to burglarize the home during the funeral service. Be cautious about such matters. Have someone stay at the home during the funeral service and do not easily accept the claims of unknown individuals that lack documentation.
Avoid Immediate Collection of Benefits. Avoid transferring title to assets or making claims as a beneficiary until considering whether either a tax or non-tax reason exists for refusing to receive an asset. Even though the account executive wants to be helpful, you may lose an important tax advantage if you accept an asset. An attorney can help you find the best approach.
Veteran’s Benefits and Social Security. Contact the Veteran’s Administration, Social Security Administration and any other government agencies or benefit programs that may be making payments to the deceased. The mortuary may assist you with the paperwork for both Veteran’s and Social Security benefits. Payment for the month of death will not be made by the Veteran’s Administration and Social Security Administration Generally, both the Veteran’s Administration and Social Security Administrations will automatically withdraw any payments made via direct deposit after date of death. If this does not happen, you must return the check for the month of death.
Veteran’s benefits may be available to the surviving spouse. Benefits may include a lump sum death benefit, if death was service connected, a continuing monthly payment to the surviving spouse, and financial assistance with funeral expenses and cemetery plot, or burial in a national cemetery. Social Security monthly benefits are available to the surviving spouse, children under 18 years of age and certain disabled children. Benefits include a lump sum death benefit.
This article is not intended to relate everything you may need to know in the first few days following a death. It is important to establish an early relationship with your attorney to assure that all matters are properly addressed. Seeking your attorney’s advice before you act may avoid more costly legal services later.
36 North Bedford Street, East Bridgewater, MA 02333
Phone: (508) 350-0120 Fax: (508) 350-0121