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When someone outside the family handles a person’s affairs upon death

After a person’s death, many decisions need to be made, and several require immediate attention. These include everything from where the remains are to be held to planning a funeral to who will deal with the person’s property until an executor or administrator is appointed by a probate court. In instances where a friend or other trusted individual, and not family, was caring for or assisting the person or who was named as an agent by the person, the decisions and needed steps to take can be more complicated.

First, a legal pronouncement of death is needed. A doctor at a hospital or facility will make this pronouncement. When a person dies at home and is under hospice care, a hospice nurse can make the pronouncement. However, when someone dies at home and is not under hospice care, law enforcement and the medical examiner will be involved. Without the official pronouncement of death, nothing can be done with the body, no arrangements can be made, and death certificates cannot be ordered. Next, the friend or designated agent must communicate with the appropriate authority in possession of the person’s body—e.g., hospital, medical examiner—to arrange for its transportation to a funeral home.

At this stage, a great deal of coordination is required, between the funeral home and hospital, facility, or medical examiner. Often, the friend or helper will assume this role and also be communicating and coordinating with the family. When the family has not seen the person in a long time or has not been involved in the person’s care, these conversations—including notifying them of the death—may require finesse.

Non-family individuals in particular must understand potential limits to their authority. Locating important documents is key. These may include a pre-paid funeral or cremation contract, Designation of Agent to Control the Disposition of Remains, and a letter of instruction. If funeral arrangements were made in advance or if a designated person was appointed to handle arrangements, much of the difficult decision making and coordinating will be reduced. For more information about pre-need funeral arrangements and appointing someone to handle the remains, see https://www.wrightabshire.com/publications/benefits-of-pre-need-funeral-contracts/ and https://www.wrightabshire.com/publications/who-makes-decisions-about-a-loved-ones-remains-after-death/.

The friend may need to decide on a funeral home, and when there is no pre-need contract or designated agent to control disposition of remains, the family must be consulted if cremation is desired. The funeral home will be helpful in communicating who does what. Generally, the funeral home (1) receives the remains, (2) obtains the necessary authority for and carries out instructions regarding the disposition of remains (embalmment, burial, cremation, etc.), and (3) orders death certificates from the state. For the death certificate, the funeral home will need details such as birthplace, marital status, and parents’ names. A non-family member providing this information will likely need to research—by locating documents, reaching out to family members, and perhaps even conducting genealogical research.

Other, important immediate steps to take include securing the person’s home, arranging pet care, collecting mail, and if possible, accessing their phone and email. After the immediate concerns are handled, search for a Will and locate the executor named in the Will.

The named executor should meet with a probate attorney to determine if probate is necessary. If so, the attorney, if hired, will be responsible for preparing the necessary documents and filing them with the appropriate court. The attorney will also provide practical advice, such as what to do with the person’s property, paying bills, accessing and managing online accounts, notifying financial institutions and other entities, and communicating with beneficiaries.

Nothing contained in this publication should be considered as the rendering of legal advice to any person’s specific case but should be considered general information.