What to Do Immediately Following the Death of a Loved One

What to Do Immediately Following the Death of a Loved One

Part I: Making Arrangements

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Joy Eckelkamp

Senior Counsel
When a loved one passes away, the survivors not only face an incredible loss, but they are often unsure how to best proceed with the personal and legal challenges that follow a death. It can seem overwhelming if one is unsure where best to focus their time and energy, especially while grieving the loss of a loved one. As an attorney who has worked with grieving families for over two decades, I have come up with some helpful advice for family members to work through in the days, weeks, and months following a death. The days following the death of a loved one can leave one vulnerable to stress, misguided advice, or high-pressure sales tactics, which may lead to rushed decisions. Hasty choices may leave one in a poor financial condition and could potentially impact the life of a survivor for years to come. Of course, informed, considered choices are generally the best ones.
My hope with this series is to provide guidance through the various steps of the personal and legal steps following the death of a loved one. The first topics in this series will be related to personal decisions about body arrangements, burial, and other similar topics. Later topics in this series will work through the legal steps one is expected to face when settling the estate of a loved one. It is my hope at the completion of this series that those who have followed along with me will have a better understanding of what they may face when a loved one passes away, and that this knowledge will bring some respite during a time of distress. Being armed with the right information in advance will provide knowledge and confidence when it is most needed.
Who to Contact First After a Death
If the death of a loved one occurs in a medical institution, the institution will notify the local authorities of the death and arrange any autopsy, if required, or requested. The local medical examiner will perform the autopsy, or a medical professional can make the pronouncement of death. However, it is also important to know who to contact if a loved one passes away at home. If the family member was receiving hospice care, the hospice medical team should be contacted, and they will arrange many of the next steps for the family. If the family member died at home and was not receiving hospice care, 911 or the local police department’s non-emergency phone number should be contacted. Local law enforcement will come to the scene and contact the medical examiner if needed. If it appears that there may have been suspicious circumstances related to the death, an autopsy may be needed. The professionals present will inquire as to which funeral company is to be used to transport the body. However, in most Texas municipalities and larger counties, if the body needs to be examined by a medical examiner and they are not at the scene, or if an autopsy is required or requested, then the transport to the medical examiner’s office can often be made by the agency, thus avoiding the cost of a private transport to their facility. In the event such a service is not needed, a funeral company will need to be selected to transport the body.
Decisions about the Body after the Death of a Loved One
What to do immediately following a death. Whether the death of your loved one occurs in a medical institution or at home, the choices as to what comes next are basically the same. The appropriate representative must come forward and immediately take possession of the body. This is not a literal possession, but merely the decisions about where the body will go next and the steps related to final arrangements. In some instances, some, or all of the decisions relating to the burial or laying to rest of the body have been made in advance by the decedent.
Appointment of Agent for Disposition of Remains
In Texas, an individual can designate an agent for the disposition of their remains, pursuant to Texas Health and Safety Code § 711.002. The agent (designee) must agree to their appointment by signing the designation at or near the time of appointment. Doing so makes the agent personally responsible for the costs of interment of the deceased. However, the agent can seek repayment from the decedent’s estate for costs paid on behalf of the decedent. An attorney should assist in the preparation and oversee the execution of a written designation of burial agent. Absent, such a properly executed, and accepted, designation of burial agent, certain persons, in the priority listed have the right to control what happens to a decedent’s remains: the decedent’s surviving spouse; any one of the decedent’s surviving adult children; either one of the decedent’s surviving parents; any one of the decedent’s surviving adult siblings; any one or more of the duly qualified executors or administrators of the decedent’s estate; or any adult person in the next degree of kinship in the order named by law to inherit the estate of the decedent. Texas Health and Safety Code §711.002(a).
We hope you found this first article of the series valuable and will continue to follow as we share more information on this subject. Please reach out to our firm if you feel that we could assist you with any of the legal matters discussed in this article. Rapp and Krock’s estate planning and administration practice is ready to assist you with your legal needs.
Author Joy Eckelkamp is Certified as an Elder Law Attorney through the National Elder Law Foundation.  She has been practicing estates and trust law and servicing families and their legal needs for 21 years.
Parts of this discussion were taken from a 2012 joint presentation made by Joy Eckelkamp, of Rapp and Krock, P.C. and Bryn Poland, of Mayo Poland, P.C.  Also, special thanks to Kenneth Lambert, owner of Funeral Negotiators, for his input about funeral goods and services.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Joy M. Eckelkamp is Senior Counsel at Rapp & Krock, PC in the Probate, Estates, Elder Law, and Trusts group.



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