What to do when someone dies

What to do when someone dies

There's a lot to think about when you have to deal with a death, all at a time when you might be struggling to cope yourself. Sarah Brealey gives a summary of the practical considerations.

1. First steps

Inform a doctor

Before anything else, you’ll need to tell a doctor and any next of kin. If the death’s at home, call their GP. In hospital, there will often be a doctor or nurse present. If the death is expected, a medical certificate showing the cause of death will be given by the doctor. If it wasn’t expected, or if the deceased hadn’t seen their GP in the last 14 days (28 days in Northern Ireland) the death has to be reported to the coroner.

After a death in hospital, the body can usually be kept in the hospital mortuary until other arrangements are made. You can keep the body at home if you wish. There are no restrictions on transporting a body.

What about organ donation or scientific research?

Organ donation will only be possible in some cases, and only if the person died in hospital. Hospital staff will talk to you about this.

A body can only be donated to scientific research if the dead person registered their wish to do this in advance.

2. Next steps

Pets and practicalities

If the deceased had pets and lived alone, make arrangements for them to be looked after. Ask family or friends or the RSPCA for help.

If their house is empty, make sure it’s secure against burglars and cancel any newspaper or milk deliveries. If the home insurance was only in the deceased’s name, it won’t be valid, so contact the insurer as soon as you can. If it’s in joint names, it will still be valid. If you were a named driver on the deceased’s car insurance, it may not be valid, so contact the insurer and explain the situation.

Registering the death

You need to register the death with the Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths for the district where the death occurred (bear in mind your local hospital may be in a different district to where the deceased lived). You’ll need the medical certificate and details about the deceased. You must do this within five days of the death (eight days in Scotland). The time limit doesn’t apply if there’s going to be a post-mortem.

Tell relatives and friends

Contact others to tell them the news. You might want to pay for a death announcement in your local paper.

Check for a will

Although you don’t have to sort out the will straight away, it’s worth looking at it early on in case it mentions a funeral plan (see below), or contains their funeral wishes. If you can’t find it, check with their solicitor, or ask the Principal Probate Registry.

Arranging the funeral

First, find out if there’s a financial funeral plan in place to cover some or all the costs of the funeral. If you don’t know this there’s no easy way to find out, but you can read their will, look with their other financial paperwork, or check with their solicitor, bank or the local funeral director.

There’s no obligation to use a funeral director – you can organise everything yourself, but this will mean extra work. Different funeral directors charge different amounts, so shop around if you feel up to it. Don’t feel pressured into buying the most expensive options.

If you receive certain means-tested benefits, you may be eligible for help with funeral costs. Contact the DWP Bereavement Service on 0845 606 0265 or a local advice agency to find out whether you’re eligible for a Funeral Payment.

3. After that

Who to tell

There will probably be quite a lot of people to tell. These include:

  • Utility providers if the bills were in the deceased’s name (don’t forget phone, broadband, mobile phone, paid TV subscriptions).
  • The dead person’s bank(s), credit card, insurance companies, pension provider, mortgage provider or landlord, organisations and clubs. Be aware that if you have a second credit card on the deceased’s account, the account will be frozen once you tell them about the death.
  • Government departments and the local council. In most of the UK there is a Tell us Once service (or Bereavement Service in Northern Ireland) which means you can tell the council and all government departments (eg tax office, DVLA, Department of Work and Pensions, passport service) with one call. Ask when you register the death if your area does this.

Sort out the finances

Claim on a life insurance plan, if there is one.

If you've lost your spouse, you may be entitled to a bereavement allowance, or a one-off bereavement payment, but generally not if you and the deceased are above state pension age. You can contact the Government's Bereavement Service on 0845 608 8601.

If there’s a will, this will name someone as the executor of the estate. If there isn’t, this responsibility goes to the closest relative, who is known as the administrator. You’ll need to gain probate (known as confirmation in Scotland) which means you can legally deal with the estate. Once you have gained probate, it is recommended that you place a notice in The Gazette to give creditors the chance to claim anything they're owed. This will protect you from responsibility for any debts.

Any inheritance tax must be paid within six months, although if it’s on a property, you’re allowed to pay it in instalments. Spouses and civil partners and charities can inherit without paying inheritance tax.

Debts or mortgages have to be paid, but only if there’s money left in the estate – debts don’t pass on to relatives. If the debt was in joint names, though, it becomes the responsibility of the survivor.

Get more information

There is an official Government guide, What to do after someone dies. This information is also available as a printed booklet - you can get a copy when you register a death, or from Jobcentre Plus offices, many funeral homes, or Citizens Advice.

In Scotland, see the Scottish Government’s booklet What to do after a death in Scotland or call 0131 244 3581.

The charity Age UK also produces a When someone dies booklet - you can get a printed copy by calling 0800 169 6565.

More useful information