“What am I supposed to do now?” Practical Advice for Family after the Death of a Loved One

When a family member or someone you are close to passes away, you are going to feel intense grief, confusion, loss, isolation, and perhaps even anger. While you are wrestling with these emotions, you are expected to know what to do and keep a level head about yourself. If you are like most people, you have no idea what do next.

I have received numerous phone calls over the years from grieving individuals who literally just saw their parent or spouse die moments before they called me, desperately seeking the answer to one simple question: “What am I supposed to do now?”

While not everyone’s situation is exactly the same, to attempt to answer that question, I have compiled a list of helpful information to hopefully provide meaningful guidance during what is probably one of the most (if not the most) difficult time in a person’s life. 

1. Contact family and friends about the death. It is useful to have someone help you with this, such as your spouse or another family member. Ask another relative, friend, or neighbor to answer your telephone or to help make telephone calls if there are a number of people to tell. 

2. If your loved one had his or her funeral prearranged, contact that funeral home to arrange for them to pick up the deceased’s body and to schedule a meeting to make the funeral arrangements.  If your loved one did not have their funeral prearranged, discuss the choice of a funeral home with close family members and friends, considering the wishes of the deceased.


3. Contact your clergyman or clergywoman of the deceased or your own if you have one. That person can help with arrangements for a funeral or memorial service.


4. When you speak with the funeral director, it is helpful to have the following information about the deceased with you: 


a.         Date of birth;

b.         Place of birth;

c.         Social Security Number;

d.         Occupation;

e.         Father’s name;

f.          Mother’s maiden name;

g.         Proof of military service, if a veteran;

h.         List of family members and relationships;

i.          List of religious, professional, or civic organizations and any other clubs in which the deceased held membership;

j.          The name and addresses of any organization or charity to which you would like to have donations made in memory of your loved one;

k.         A list of people who might be available to serve as pallbearers during the funeral.

l.          A list of people who you may wish to speak about your loved one at the funeral or memorial service.

5. Meet with a caterer or make reservations at a restaurant for the reception after the funeral or memorial service. You may wish to tell the funeral director about the reception to be held after the service.

6. When meeting with the funeral director, request at least 10 death certificates. These will be needed to file any claims for life insurance, to probate the estate (if necessary), and to make claims for IRAs or 401(k)s, etc. If your loved one was a veteran, your may be able to obtain additional death certificates at no cost.

7. Usually, the time to call the estate attorney for an appointment comes after the funeral or memorial service, because that is when the death certificates are available and given to the named executor in the deceased’s will or close family. Typically, the death certificates are given to the person who made the funeral arrangements.

8. The reason to call an estate attorney after the funeral or memorial service is so that you know what to do next insofar as any assets or liabilities of the deceased. The attorney can advise you whether or not you need to probate an estate.  Often there is no need to worry about probating, but that is a determination that should be made by a licensed attorney. The attorney will also review the Last Will and Testament of the decedent with you to help you understand its contents; or, in the case of a person dying without a will, explain the intestacy law and its effect on the administration of the estate.

Sometimes I am asked if an appointment is needed for the “Reading of the Will” and actually, that practice is no longer done. The need to “Read a Will” ceased thanks to modern technology with the invention of the photocopier. 

9. When you speak with the Estate Attorney, it is helpful to have the following information and documentation with you: 


a.         The original (or copy) of the Will;

b.         Original death certificate;

c.         Names and addresses of immediate family or those named in the Will (if known);

d.         Copies of financial statements;

e.         Information about any real estate owned by the decedent;

f.          Bills or other evidence of indebtedness of the decedent;

10. The Estate Attorney will then review everything with you and let you know what the next appropriate steps would be.  That’s why we’re here.

Most of all, throughout all of this, remember that you are grieving and it is a process that takes place over time. It often involves intense emotions which you may find difficult to manage.  Make sure you take care and comfort yourself and the others left behind.

Jessica R. Grater, Esquire, is an attorney with the law firm of Wolf, Baldwin & Associates, P.C., with offices in Pottstown, West Chester, and Reading.  Ms. Grater concentrates her practice in Wills, Estates, Probate, Orphans’ Court, and Social Security Disability, and litigation related to such matters.  She may be reached at 610.323.7436 or by e-mail to jgrater@wolfbaldwin.com.