The Executors First Tasks Following a Death

Here's a list that can help you get organized in the hectic and difficult time after a loved one's death.

In addition to planning a funeral or memorial service, there’s a lot to do in the first few days after a loved one’s death. Dealing with all these details at the same time you’re coping with a personal loss can be extremely difficult; this list may help you keep track of things and delegate some tasks. Remember that those close to you will be happy to pitch in if you tell them what you need.

1. Call close friends and relatives to tell them about the death. Start with the people you know, and then get help from the deceased person’s address book. It’s often helpful to delegate this difficult task, at least in part, to a close friend. Otherwise, dealing with the grieved reactions of a long list of friends and relatives can be too much to handle.

2. Start making a list of others you’ll notify later. There may be lots of people—former coworkers or old neighbors, for example—who you’ll want to notify eventually. For now, don’t worry about it. There will be time later to send letters, emails, or printed announcements.

3. Contact clergy, if you wish. You may want just to talk, or to ask someone to preside over a funeral or memorial service.

4. Arrange for child care, if necessary. Unless the death was totally unexpected, arrangements have probably already been made for children, but it’s important that they not be overlooked when the grownups are busy with practical concerns.

5. Choose an organization to receive gifts. People may ask you where they can donate money in honor of the deceased person; if you wish, you can name, for example, a hospice, library, church, nonprofit organization, scholarship fund, or school.

6. Collect information for a death notice and obituary. For a small fee, you can insert a short death notice in the local paper, announcing the death and where and when the memorial service will be held. An obituary is a news article about someone’s life; the newspaper decides whether or not to write one. In small towns, almost everyone gets an obituary; in big cities, very few do. The smaller the town, the more likely you may be asked by the local paper to help compose the obituary. If so, you’ll need to know basic facts about the deceased person’s life, such as place of birth, cause of death, occupation, high school and college, organization memberships, military service, outstanding work, marriage, children, and grandchildren. The funeral home or newspaper may have a form that will help you organize this information. You can also look at examples in the paper to get an idea of how it’s done.

7. Arrange for meals for a few days. Family members won’t have time or energy to cook, and you’ll need to feed visitors, probably before and after the funeral.

8. Ask someone to arrange accommodations for out-of-town guests. People coming in will need a place to stay and will appreciate some help.

9. Keep a list of people who help out or send cards, food, or flowers. Later, you can send them thank-you notes. Funeral homes sometimes provide books for this purpose.

10. Safeguard valuables. Lots of people will probably be coming and going, and things can disappear. So if the deceased person’s home contains cash, valuable jewelry, art, collections, or other similar items, make sure they are locked away. If relatives or friends pressure you to let them take a “keepsake,” or something they say was promised to them, explain that legally, you can't give anything away yet.

See The Executor's Responsibility to Manage Estate Property for more information.

11. Ask someone to collect the mail. Either have the deceased person’s mail forwarded, or toss all the incoming mail into a box. You can sort through it later.

12. Stop newspaper subscriptions. If the deceased person’s house is now unoccupied, you don’t want papers to pile up outside.

13. Arrange for pet care. If the deceased person didn’t make arrangements in advance, you’ll need someone to take pets until you can make long-term arrangements. Don’t drop pets at a shelter trusting that they will find homes—overcrowded shelters commonly euthanize many adoptable pets. Instead, contact a rescue group, which will keep animals until it finds them a permanent home. No matter where you live, there is probably one close by. Look online or call a local humane society for information.

14. Arrange for yard care. You may need to get someone—perhaps a neighbor’s teenager—to mow the lawn or shovel snow.

15. Decide what to do with flowers after the funeral. Even if you ask for charitable donations in lieu of flowers, you’ll probably get some anyway. You may want to donate them to a church, hospital, or nursing home.

16. Ask a friend to stay at the house during the funeral. This will guard against break-ins while the family is away. Sad to say, some burglars scan published death notices and target houses they expect will be empty because of a funeral.

17. Find the will or living trust and put it in a safe place. Any important papers you come across should be locked away.

For lots of information on the executors duties and issues to expect, see our section on Settling an Estate.

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