What do I do if somebody dies?
A step-by-step guide to handling essentials when a loved one passes away
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Dealing with death is one of the greatest challenges of life.
If you have lost someone close to you, or are responsible for managing the affairs of someone who has passed away, there is an overwhelming amount to take care of.
We've compiled this guide to walk you through some areas you may need to take care of.
Immediate steps to take depending on where the person has died.
Nursing home or hospital
The majority of deaths occur inside a hospital or nursing home and most have procedures in place when someone dies.
If someone dies at home then it's crucial to stay calm and assess the specific circumstance. If the death is:
- Unexpected, call emergency services as soon as possible.
- Expected, they may already have a medical professional in contact with you. In this case, get in touch with them. If there is no medical contact, call emergency services.
If someone passed away while overseas, there are two points of contact:
- The travel insurance provider. This is who to contact first, where applicable. Travel insurance providers can offer assistance and help return people home.
- The relevant embassy or consulate. This is the Australian embassy or consulate in the relevant region. Find a list here.
Essential steps to take next
1. Obtain a doctor’s certificate
The first formality after someone dies is to get a doctor’s certificate confirming the event. This certificate is formally known as a Doctor’s Certificate of Cause of Death, or Medical Certificate of Cause of Death. It confirms that someone has passed away and details how it happened. A funeral home will need this certificate before it will take charge of the deceased's body.
2. Notify people of the death
There are a few people you may need to notify. As a start, here are some people you should probably notify first:
Friends and family
The first people to notify are family and friends because they might be able to offer you help and support as well as assist you with the next steps.
Next of kin (if it's not you)
You or the doctor should also notify the next of kin, if necessary, as soon as possible. Usually only the next of kin, or an appropriate representative, can carry out certain steps, such as taking charge of the body before a funeral.
Insurance and funeral plans
If you know there is a life insurance policy, funeral plan or some other type of relevant cover, then you should contact the insurance provider as soon as possible. They will often send you an information pack and offer assistance to help you claim the insurance payout. Here's a checklist you can use for organisations and people you may need to notify:
3. Officially register the death (Obtain a death certificate)
The next step is to obtain a death certificate. A funeral director might obtain this on your behalf when you’re organising a funeral. Otherwise, you should contact the relevant government office.
What will I need in order to get a death certificate?You will need to have the following:
- The details of the death as per the doctor’s certificate
- Your personal and contact details
- Personal identity documents, such as a passport or driver’s license, as specified on the application form
- The relevant payment
How do I register a death if I don't have a funeral director?
The relevant government office is the state or territory registry office in the state where the person passed away. You will generally need to provide specific documentation in order to receive a death certificate, and you may have to pay a fee. You can apply for a death certificate online, at the state and registry websites listed below, or in person at the government offices or service centres. Here is a list of state and territory registry offices
4. Find out if the deceased arranged any financial entitlements
Try to find the following information, if it exists:
- A will. This is a written document detailing what the person wanted to happen after they passed away.
- Insurance policies or funeral plans. If someone has any kind of private health, sickness, accident, life or disability insurance policies, or any kind of funeral plan, then it is important to find the details.
- Superannuation. A person’s superannuation fund will often include some form of life insurance, so you should check that as soon as you can.
Once you find these, you will have a better understanding of where you stand financially, and how you might pay for funeral expenses or for a solicitor’s help in handling these affairs.
How can I access a person's will, life insurance or super fund?
You will need to provide a death certificate.
Where should I look for a will and insurance policies?
- Check all paperwork and correspondence
- Check with the person’s lawyer or solicitor since they might have left a will there
- Check with the state registry office where a death certificate was obtained. These offices will sometimes hold wills on people’s behalf.
5. Organise the funeral
Organising a funeral is a complex process. The closest family members of the deceased will generally make funeral decisions, possibly in consultation with a funeral director. There are many decisions to make when organising a funeral. But it's important to check if the deceased has left any instructions relating to the funeral or has any funeral benefits in their insurance. Here are some of the decisions funeral organisers will have to make:
- Finding a funeral director. It can feel very draining to shop around for a funeral company and director if the deceased hasn't nominated one, but it's worth comparing plans and prices if you can. You can find a detailed list of Australian funeral homes and directors here.
- Cemetery location. You will need to choose a final resting place for the deceased. You will also need to select a venue for a memorial service.
- Cremation or burial. Will the deceased be cremated or buried? Have they already purchased a burial plot? Are there any religious burial customs to consider?
- Invitations. When organising the funeral you need to get in touch with everyone close to the deceased who may wish to attend the funeral.
Find out more about funeral costs in each state here.
6. Make a claim for any financial arrangements
The claims process for life insurance payments and accessing the deceased’s estate, such as bank accounts and superannuation, can take some time. It's a good idea to start as soon as possible.
Who do I contact to make a claim for life insurance?
This will depend how the person bought the policy
- If the life insurance policy was purchased through a financial adviser then you should contact the adviser to get help making a claim.
- If the insurance is held inside a superannuation fund then you should contact the trustee, or the superannuation provider, for assistance.
- If the insurance was purchased directly then you can contact the insurer directly.
7. Last of all? Take care of yourself
Although this is number seven, it's something that should be considered from the start. It's important to take care of your grief when a loved one dies. The challenges of registering a person's death, handling their affairs, contacting loved ones and organising a funeral are stressful at the best of times. But doing so while grieving for a lost loved one makes it so much harder.
Remember to take care of yourself as best you can. Talk about your feelings with people close to you. Get rest when you can and delegate responsibilities to others if you feel overwhelmed. Consider therapy, counselling or taking time off work if you need it.
Why leaving a will is important
It makes it a lot easier all round if you leave a will that explains exactly how you want your estate to be divided up on your passing. Besides it explaining how your assets are to be distributed it can also name who you want to be the executor of your will.
This is usually a person who you feel understands what you want to happen and is a further protection as to how your assets are to be treated. Before any of this can happen the executor has to formally apply to the Supreme Court for what is known as "a grant of probate". This is the court's recognition that the will before it was your last. Once the Supreme Court has dealt with it and probate is granted your assets can be treated as you wished them to be.
Almost half of all Australian who die, do so without leaving a will. When this occurs it is known as you having died 'intestate.' When this happens it is usual for the Probate Court to distribute your assets in the following manner:
- The first priority is your surviving spouse and your children.
- If you have no children your spouse will be the sole beneficiary.
- If you haven't got a spouse but do have children they will receive the benefits, adopted children have equal treatment as do biological children. After these children will come any half brothers or sisters.
- If you have neither a surviving spouse nor any children your proceeds will go to your next of kin.
- Failing all this and no relatives can be found your estate will go to the state.
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