Financial Caregiving 101

What to Do After a Parent's Death

Cameron Huddleston
Cameron Huddleston
January 2, 2024
What to Do After a Parent's Death

The death of a parent can be an incredibly difficult time. It's important to take time to grieve. However, while coping with your grief, you might also find yourself having to handle your parent’s final arrangements and settle his or her estate.

Navigating this process can feel overwhelming if you don't know what steps to take. Even if you do have a general idea of what to do after a parent's death, it still can be stressul gathering the information you need to make final arrangements, take inventory of your parent's assets, close accounts and settle debts. That's why it helps to have a checklist to guide you through the process.

Here are steps to take when a parent or loved one dies.

Steps to take when someone dies

Get a pronouncement of death

If your parent dies in a hospital, hospice facility or nursing home, the staff will handle getting an official pronouncement of death that certifies the cause, time and place of death. This will be needed for a death certificate. If your loved one dies at home, call 911 to have your parent transported to a hospital where a doctor can make a pronouncement. After your loved one is pronounced dead, you can make arrangements for him or her to be transported to a funeral home. 

Contact your parent’s friends and family

Let those who were close to your parent know about your parent’s death. You might need to access your parent’s cell phone or look for an address book in your parent’s home to gather contact information. In addition to friends and family, you might also need to contact the following:

  • Employer (if applicable)
  • Your parent’s doctor
  • Caregivers or anyone who helped your parent
  • Your parent’s place of worship
  • Community or social groups with which your parent was involved
  • Local newspaper to place an obituary

Secure your parent’s home

Ask a friend, family member or trusted neighbor to keep an eye on your parent’s house and collect mail until you can put in a request with the post office to have the mail forwarded to you or whomever will be managing your parent’s estate. Also, arrange care for any pets your parent had.

Make funeral and burial plans

Hopefully, your parent told you or other family members what sort of funeral and burial he or she wanted. If not, look for written instructions that might be stored with your parent’s legal documents in a desk, home safe or safe deposit box. You also could check if your parent’s attorney was left with instructions. And you could call local funeral homes to see if your parent prepaid for funeral arrangements.

If your parent was in the military, contact the Department of Veterans Affairs to find out if your parent qualifies for veterans burial benefits.

[ Read: How Much Does a Funeral Cost? ]

Get copies of the death certificate

The funeral director should be able to help you get certified copies of your parent’s death certificate. You’ll need several to provide to the insurance company for life insurance benefits, to your parent’s financial institutions, to the court for the probate process and for any other financial or legal transactions you might have to handle. 

[ Keep Reading: How to Get a Death Certificate ]

Locate life insurance policies

Check your parent’s desk, files, home safe or safe deposit box for any life insurance policies your parent might have had. Bank statements also might reveal whether your parent was paying premiums on a policy. You’ll need to file a claim and submit a copy of the death certificate to claim death benefits for yourself and any other beneficiaries named on the policy. The payout could come in handy if you need cash to cover funeral costs.

Locate the will and start the probate process

If your parent had a will, it will spell out who gets what and will name an executor to oversee distribution of assets. You will need to file the will with the probate court in your parent’s city to begin probate, the legal process of distributing assets and settling debts after death.

If your parent died without a will, the court will decide how your parent’s assets are distributed based on state laws. Either way, if you will be handling your parent’s estate, you need to get what are called letters of administration (or representation or testamentary) from the probate court to access any financial accounts that you weren’t a joint owner of with your parent. (You’ll be allowed to access joint accounts without going through the probate process).

If your parent dies with debt, the debts will be settled during the probate process. Any assets or property your parent had will be used to pay off debts before any money can be passed on to heirs. Learn more about what to do if your parent dies with debt.

If your parent had a trust, you won’t have to go through probate. Contact your parent’s attorney to discuss what steps to take.

Take inventory of assets and financial accounts

If you are the executor of your parent’s estate, you’ll likely need to take inventory of your parent’s assets for the probate process. Check your parent’s mail for account statements and search the house for deeds, property titles, business agreements and tax returns. If your parent had a financial advisor or accountant, that professional will likely know what assets your parent had.

You can access funds in accounts for which you are a joint account holder. And if you were named the beneficiary on your parent’s retirement account, contact the company that administers the account to find out what steps you need to take to transfer the funds. However, you won’t be able to access funds from accounts or transfer property in your parent’s name only until granted access by the probate court.

Notify government agencies of your parent's death

If your parent was receiving Social Security benefits, report the death to the Social Security Administration to stop benefit payments by calling 1-800-772-1213. Be aware that the funeral home might take care of this step for you.

Notify Medicare or Medicaid if your parent was receiving either of those health coverage benefits. Reach out to any other government agencies that were providing benefits to your parent. Contact the Department of Motor Vehicles to cancel your parent’s driver’s license.

Notify financial institutions of your parent's death

Let your parent’s bank, pension provider, credit card companies, loan providers and any other financial institutions know about your parent’s death. Also contact the credit bureaus – Experian, Equifax and TransUnion – to place a death notice on your parent’s credit reports. 

Make a list of bills and cancel unnecessary services

Collect your parent’s mail and check the bank account or bank statements to see what bills are regularly paid. You might need to continue paying for some services such as electricity, gas, water and homeowners insurance until your parent’s house is sold. However, you might be able to quickly cancel the following services:

  • Auto insurance
  • Cell phone service
  • Internet
  • Cable or satellite TV
  • Newspaper and magazine subscriptions
  • Home deliveries
  • Prescription drug deliveries

Also deactivate your parent’s email and social media accounts to prevent identity theft. Some social media sites such as Facebook allow an account to be memorialized so that friends and family can share memories about the person who has died. 

File a final tax return

You’ll have to file a tax return for your parent—d pay any taxes that are owed. IRS Publication 559 has details on filing a return on behalf of someone who has died. Do not close your parent's bank account or an estate account that might be set up after your parent's death until you've filed a final tax return so you can deposit any refunds owed to your parent.

Consider hiring an accountant if your parent didn’t already have one to help prepare the return and assist with tax matters related to settling your parent’s estate. You also might need to hire an attorney to guide you through the probate process. Just remember that it’s OK to get help. You don’t have to go through this alone.

Bottom Line

Having a checklist of the steps to take after a parent's death will make a difficult time a little easier. It won't ease your grief. But it will minimize the stress and confusion you would otherwise face if you tried to tackle everything that needs to be done without a resource to guide you.

[ Keep Reading: How to Help a Parent With Finances After the Loss of a Spouse ]

Cameron Huddleston

Cameron Huddleston

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