Topic 4: The vital first steps to take when a loved one passes away

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Dealing with the sudden, or even anticipated, death of a loved one will probably be one of the most difficult times you’ll ever have to face.

As well as coping with your own grief and that of family and friends, there’s a raft of arrangements that need to be made quickly, making it vital you have the right information to hand.

In this guide – the fourth in our series about dealing with bereavement – we look at the important first steps to take following the loss of a loved one.

  • Get medical confirmation of the death

Once someone has died, two documents are issued – usually some days apart: a verification of death and a medical certificate of cause of death.

While the names between the two documents may vary slightly in each state, in New South Wales for example, the verification of death is a clinical assessment process undertaken to establish that a person has died. It can be issued by a registered doctor or nurse or qualified paramedic, and documents that death has occurred.

Once the verification of death certificate has been issued, the funeral company can then take your loved one into their care, and funeral arrangements can start to be made.

Separately, a medical certificate cause of death is the form issued by the state-based registry of births, deaths and marriages. It’s usually lodged by the medical practitioner who was responsible for your loved one’s medical care immediately before their death, or who examined their body after death. Some funeral providers are also able to lodge the cause of death certificate.

Because you’ll need one or both of these documents to act on your loved one’s behalf with most (if not all) organisations you’ll be dealing with, it’s worth making multiple copies of each, and having them signed by a justice of the peace (JP) to verify them as being true copies of the original documents.

You can find a JP near you by clicking through to the relevant state on the Australia.gov.au website.

Depending on their policies, some organisations such as banks and insurance companies will require one or both of these documents. The documents also allow the executor to commence administration of the estate.

Other important documents such as the loved one’s driver’s licence, passport, birth certificate, marriage certificate or divorce decree, Centrelink details and any other relevant membership numbers should also be gathered at this time.

Again, it’s worth making multiple copies of these documents because each organisation or company you contact will ask you for different forms of identification to act on your loved one’s behalf.

The SmartTraveller website provides information about the additional considerations if your loved one dies overseas.

  • Locate the will and other documents

If your loved one has a will, it can be given to their executor, who will begin the process of distributing the estate as per their wishes. (An executor is the legal name for a person named by person who made the will as responsible for carrying out their wishes, and could be a family member, friend, professional advisor or the Public Trustee.)

In situations where there is no will, the government will appoint an administrator to manage the estate. In this instance, the estate is divided up against surviving relatives according to a formula set by state law. If there are no close relatives, the estate could potentially be paid to a state or territory government, as the Department of Human Services explains.

Your loved one may also have insurance policies or a funeral plan in place. Locate the documents related to any plan or policy, and then contact the companies to see what assistance they can offer or what arrangements are in place.

  • Make funeral arrangements and register the death

Your loved one may have left instructions about their wishes for their funeral. They may also have already paid for a funeral service. Funeral costs can vary greatly, and can easily run into the thousands of dollars, so it’s worth checking if any plan is in place to cover these costs.

Most people choose to use a funeral company to make all the necessary arrangements. The funeral director will collect the information needed to register the death with the births, deaths and marriages registry in your state or territory.

If a funeral director is not being used, the person who manages the final arrangements for the deceased must register the death. This can be done at the appropriate state or territory registry.

  • Notify relevant people and organisations

As well as letting family and friends know about the death of your loved one, you may also need to notify other people and organisations.

Banks and financial institutions have specific rules about how they handle the accounts of deceased customers. It’s worth checking the bank’s website for the documents it requires before getting in contact.

Westpac, for example, has a detailed downloadable guide to dealing with bereavement, which runs through the bank’s processes for managing the accounts of the deceased. The guide also contains a thorough checklist of the organisations and people you may need to contact, within the bank and outside.                                                                                            

It’s important to notify financial institutions of a death as soon as possible, to prevent potential fraud and identify theft.

Among other things, Westpac’s guide recommends sending a copy of the death certificate to the Australian Tax Office, which will then flag the account as deceased. This notification can be done quickly and easily online via the ATO’s website.

Other legal documents such as passports and driving licences will need to be returned and cancelled, although this is not an immediate concern.

As each organisation will have its own process for handling a death, the easiest way to negotiate this is notify them is by phone and follow any instructions from there.

  • Deal with active social media accounts

With the increasing popularity of social media, it’s likely that your loved one will have one or more social media accounts.

Each of the major platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest, have different processes for handling accounts in the event of a death. You can read more about how to navigate the world of social media in these circumstances here.

It’s important to discuss these types of issues with your spouse and other loved ones in advance, or if you’re single, discuss them with a trusted friend. Ensure they know where your key documents are kept in case you should die suddenly.

Dealing with the death of a loved one is never easy, but the more aware you can be of the steps to take in the event of a death, the better prepared you will be when you have take them, hopefully reducing your stress in an already sad time.

Would you have known the steps to take immediately after the loss of a loved one? What advice would you give someone in the same situation?

Westpac has been proudly supporting Australians through all of life’s wonderful, agonising, and exhilarating moments since 1817.

Important information: The information provided on this website is of a general nature and for information purposes only. It does not take into account your objectives, financial situation or needs. It is not financial product advice and must not be relied upon as such. Before making any financial decision you should determine whether the information is appropriate in terms of your particular circumstances and seek advice from an independent licensed financial services professional.