For close family and friends of the person who has died, waves of denial, shock, anger, fear and depression are each singularly challenging but entirely natural emotions. Facing the practical reality of what to do when your loved one has died may feel insurmountable.
I reflect not only on my professional experience of involvement with the family of the person who has died from the outset, but from personal experience of the pain and needless chaos caused by loss of beloved family members. Whether anticipated, elderly or far too young to die, it makes little difference. Whilst Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying may provide some of us with moments of clarity in weeks leading up to loss or days after the shock of loss, what of the practicality of what to do next and how to prioritise? Every religion or culture has traditions, customs and obligations surrounding death, the detail of which is not addressed below.
Did the person die at home?
If the Deceased lived alone at home, on the day of death someone should visit their home to check it is safe and secure, ensuring doors and windows are locked and deliveries cancelled. Other than perishables, everything in their home should remain there because a valuation of belongings may well be required at a later date for inheritance tax purposes. If they had a pet, temporary care arrangements should be made, either through family and friends or an animal rescue charity.
Try to find insurance papers for the contents and building, ring the insurers to advise them of the death, requesting confirmation that insurance will remain in place. Note the time and content of your conversation and store this with the insurance papers for now.
Registering the death
A doctor may have issued a medical certificate, stating the cause of death and with this certificate, the death should be registered within 5 days (of death) at the register office for births, deaths, marriages and civil partnerships in the district where they died. Telephone the register office to see whether it is necessary to make an appointment before attending.
Whether they died at home, in hospital or in a care home will determine who may register the death. A Gov.uk website provides all information https://www.gov.uk/register-a-death
If a Coroner is involved because the Deceased was not treated by a doctor before their death or if the death was sudden, unnatural or violent, the Coroner will liaise with the Registrar or provide the paperwork required to register the death.
Amongst other personal information required to register (date and place of birth and death, former names, occupation, last address, as well as name, date of birth and occupation of spouse), ensure that you have the correct spelling of the full name of the Deceased as mistakes are not only difficult to amend but cause complexities later. You may need to find and check the Deceased’s birth, marriage or civil partnership certificate to ensure these details are correct.
Several certified copies of the death certificate should be requested from the Registrar for which you will be charged initially, however this fee can be re-claimed as a cost of the estate eventually. You will need death certificates to give notice of the death to each financial (and other) institution, and it is possible but inconvenient to order additional copies later. As well as death certificates, the Registrar will issue a certificate for burial or cremation.
Is there a Will?
If you know who is appointed as chosen executor (personal representative(s) of the Will), notify them as they should be involved from the outset where possible. There may be reference to funeral wishes in the Will or in a letter accompanying the Will therefore it is best to try to find the Will or a copy of the Will as soon as possible. If the executors are unknown, the Will confirms the executors. Only the executors are entitled to see the Will before probate is granted, the Grant of Probate being the document confirming that the executors have the authority to administer (deal with) the estate. Once granted, (and it may take some months to obtain probate) a Will becomes a public document.
It is usual for the solicitor who prepared the Will to include their address and contact details on the cover. They often also hold the original Will. Otherwise a Will is sometimes stored at the bank. Although the Will (or accompanying letter of wishes) cannot be sent to you unless you are a named executor, you should be advised of the executors and any funeral wishes. The executors are not obliged to instruct the firm that drafted the Will to act on their behalf in the administration of the estate. They may choose a solicitor or try to deal with it themselves.
If you cannot find the Will, a solicitor can assist with searches, administrators are appointed (usually close relatives of the Deceased although there is a legal order of priority as to who is appointed) to deal with the estate in much the same way as executors.
Organising the funeral
Refer to the Will (if you have found this) or any note stored with the Will for any funeral wishes. Although not legally obliged to follow funeral wishes, it is usual to do so.
By taking on the responsibility for arranging the funeral, be aware that you may also be taking on the responsibility of paying for it until you are reimbursed from estate funds later. Alternatively, if there is a pre-paid funeral plan, contact the provider for their procedure. Contact the bereavement department of the Deceased’s bank who may release funds for funeral expenses. If original invoices are passed to the bank, they usually make direct payment to a funeral director. Keep copies of all funeral (including the wake, flowers, printing) receipts as they are needed for the probate application. Funeral directors are not a regulated industry so consider a member of SAIF (The National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors) or NAFD (National Association of Funeral Directors). A useful Gov.uk site is https://www.gov.uk/after-a-death/arrange-the-funeral
Following the funeral
The role of personal representative, as executor or administrator is not only an onerous one but it carries stringent personal responsibility, therefore the guidance of an approachable and reasonable private client practitioner, experienced both in life and death, during the estate administration process will prove invaluable. At DKLM we have significant experience of acting for individuals and families from different cultures.
If you are an executor or family member who has suffered loss, please contact the writer, Charlotte Pollard, Private Client at DKLM LLP (firstname.lastname@example.org or 0207 549 7896) for a list of information that will be useful at an initial meeting to discuss all aspects of the estate including procedure, inheritance tax and average timescale to obtain probate. If preferable, an informal initial telephone call may allay your immediate concerns.