“I’m so sorry for your loss”
By Mary Bart
This, of course, is a customary expression that people use to convey sympathy when a loved one passes. It might be fair to say that a similar expression, “My condolences,” better refers to the mountain of important decisions, significant effort and paperwork that is coming up.
At a time of great grief, families (especially estate executors) are usually faced with the responsibilities of having to create an appropriate plan—one that allows them to make important and sometimes time-sensitive moral, legal and financial decisions. Let’s take a look at some of the major choices and responsibilities that must be tackled.
Directly after death
There is no panic to do anything immediately (unless the person’s organs are being donated; see below). Depending on where death occurs, you may have the opportunity to stay with the body for a few hours. Perhaps there are rituals to perform, or family members might want to say their last goodbyes.
If your loved one dies at home, don’t be surprised if the coroner is called in to decide next steps. According to funeral director Rick Evans: “In most cases the doctor or coroner will issue the medical certificate of death. In some cases where there is a palliative care protocol in place (allowing a person to die at home) the nurse in charge can pronounce the death and release the body to the funeral provider. Then a palliative care doctor will provide the death certificate the next day. There is only one master death certificate issued and it is used to register the death with the province. Funeral directors or providers will issue ‘proofs of death’ for estate purposes.”
Find the will
You need to find the original copy of your loved one’s will. This legal document will be required at every step of settling a person’s estate. The will might also include details of the deceased’s “wishes, values and beliefs” for their funeral and burial or cremation arrangements. It’s wise to look at the power of attorney documents and the person’s driver’s licence for additional specific instructions. According to funeral director Kat Downey of Legacy Matters, more and more people are prearranging and prepaying for their funerals. Downey says: “When people have the courage to learn more about the emotional and financial advantages of prearranging their funeral, there is an incredible sense of accomplishment and peace of mind knowing that they have not left this burden to others.”
When you and other family members don’t have specific instructions to follow, it’s ideal if you have a good idea of what the person would have wanted. Were there any conversations that might help guide the funeral, burial or cremation plans? Are there religious or cultural beliefs that need to be respected?
Organ donation is a time-sensitive issue that needs to be handled as quickly as possible. Often your loved one might have expressed, in advance, that they would like their liver, skin, lungs or heart
donated to a person in need. Donation instructions are often found on the driver’s licence. According
to a Government of Canada website, organ donations can:
• Save as many as eight lives
• Improve quality of life for up to 75 people
• Benefit countless families and loved ones of those in need
It is important to note that organ donation is decided by family members, even if your loved one has not indicated beforehand whether or not they would like to donate their organs.
Planning a funeral
The family and friends of the deceased usually plan the service, the (optional) reception and the burial or cremation. Engaging others in making arrangements will help to ensure that everyone is pleased with the outcome and that expectations are met. Working with a funeral home director the following issues should be covered, with consideration given to the wishes of the deceased.
• Will the body be embalmed, cremated.
• What is the budget for the funeral and who will pay the bill? Have any expenses been prepaid?
• Will there be “visitations” before the funeral?
• Will the casket be open or closed?
• If the deceased is being cremated, what is the plan for their ashes?
• Who will speak at the service? Will there be music?
• Who will the pallbearers be?
• Will there be flowers or charitable donations?
• What about “funeral memorial cards”?
• Are special arrangements needed for pet sitting or for out-of-town guests?
• Will there be a reception with food?
Notifying family, friends, and members in the community
Once the funeral, burial or cremation and reception plans have been finalized, you should contact as many family and friends as possible. Death notices in newspapers, social media, emails and the telephone are common ways to spread the word. Ask for help from your family and friends to make this an easier task and discuss appropriate options for wording with the funeral home director.
The funeral director can help you write the death notice and place it in the appropriate newspapers. If the person lived in several cities then you will want to place death notices in publications from each location. Include the date and location of death, the names of surviving family members and highlights of the deceased’s life. Include information about the service and whether flowers or donations are requested. (Be mindful not to include any details that thieves could use.)
Traditional funerals have a reception directly following the service, allowing those present to share memories, and console and visit with each other. “Celebrations of life” are now very popular. These events do not necessarily directly follow the funeral; sometimes they are weeks or months later. They truly celebrate the life of the deceased. Many are themed, and include the deceased’s favourite music,
details of their favourite hobbies and travel pictures.
Use a large envelope to store any sympathy cards and donations received. You will want to thank all these people for their support and perhaps save their kind words.
The final resting place
If the body is being buried, you will need to purchase a cemetery plot, a headstone or space at a mausoleum. Before purchasing a
headstone, check the cemetery’s rules. If the deceased is being cremated then you will need to buy an urn or select a favourite container for the ashes. You might want to scatter the ashes in a special place, transfer them to a mausoleum or simply take them home.
Closing down affairs
Now the long, detailed and sometimes complicated process of wrapping up your loved one’s affairs begins. It is recommended that you work with a lawyer and an accountant to make things go as smoothly as possible. They can save you many hours of frustration and months of delays.
Here is a checklist of tasks to be completed and institutions that need to be notified.
• Ask the funeral home or your provincial or territory government for at least 12 copies of the proof of death certificate. If the person died outside of Canada then you must get a death certificate from that country.
• Keep the original will to hand. If you do not have the will or suspect that one was never drawn up, consult a lawyer on how to proceed.
• Create an inventory of all assets, including bank, brokerage, insurance, pensions and benefits accounts, titles and deeds to properties and vehicles (including RVs and boats), and details of furniture, jewellery, fur coats, stocks, art and so on.
• Make a list of the bills and account numbers for utilities, mortgages, loans, credit cards and property taxes.
• Make sure all pets, houseplants and perishable items are taken care of.
Work through the list of tasks noted below. If you need assistance then an estate documentation company can help you to manage many of the jobs, excluding legal and accounting issues. This service may of particular interest to those who are grieving and overwhelmed, but know that the paperwork must be addressed.
• Service Canada
• The Canada Revenue Agency and Veterans Affairs
• Financial institutions
• Insurance companies (car, home and life)
• Employer and pension providers
• Utilities companies
• Religious, cultural or professional associations
• Elections Canada
• Canada Post (have mail forwarded to the executor)
• Government health insurance
• Driver’s licence
• Citizenship or permanent resident card
• Secure Certificate of Indian Status
• Newspapers and magazine subscriptions
• Memberships and credit cards
• Email, social media and online shopping accounts
• If any survivor benefits will come from pensions or insurance policies (including those from employers and unions), death, survivor or children benefits, Old Age Security, employment insurance, Veterans Affairs or the Canada Pension Plan
• What benefits you might be entitled to, according to whether you were married, in a common-law relationship or a dependant child of the deceased
• The correct time to close out banking and brokerage accounts (e.g., RRSPs, RIFs, disability savings plans, investments, savings and chequing, safety deposit boxes); your lawyer and accountant will be of great value here
Secure or make arrangements for:
• The deceased’s home and vehicles
• House plants and pets
• Furniture and belongings (you can find temporary space for them if more time is needed)
• Funeral expenses and all outstanding bills
• Any taxes that are owing (check with the Canada Revenue Agency)
Overwhelmed and stressed yet?
As you can see, “it takes a village” to properly respect funeral and burial or cremation wishes while also wrapping up the deceased’s affairs. Delegate as much as possible to family members or to a funeral director, lawyer, accountant or tax preparer.
It is only by having a plan and a team in place that you will be able to start another critical process: Your own grieving journey.
Mary Bart is the chair of Caregiving Matters, an Internet-based charity that offers education and support to family caregivers.