Prevent Financial Fallout: What to Do When a Loved One Unexpectedly Dies

A woman hugs a photo of a dead relative while grieving.
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It is hard to imagine something worse than losing someone you love without warning. Sudden or unexpected deaths are all too common, and the shock and pain of losing a parent, a spouse or anyone deeply entwined with your own life can leave you with a hundred questions that all feel like they need to be answered straight away.

Most pressing, you will want to know what to do next. If you have lost someone before their time, it is likely they may not have put their affairs in order or made any preparations for what happens when they pass away. In that terrible event, you will need to know what to do, not only for yourself and those still with you, but to honor the memory of someone who wouldn’t want you to have to struggle without them.

What to Do When a Loved One Unexpectedly Dies 

The First Step

Within minutes after the loss of a loved one, you will have one of your first big decisions. What is to be done with the remains? If the death occurred in a hospital, doctors and nurses will initially handle the body, but they will ask you which funeral home you would like to transport the body out of the hospital. Hospitals will hold the body for a few days in their morgue, but after a standard 72 hours, they may begin charging fees. If the death occurs in a home, funeral homes will also be the ones to remove the body, which should be done as soon as possible.

Still, do not feel pressured to make a hasty decision. It is a sad fact that funerals are expensive and only growing in price, averaging at $7,848 in 2023. You should take time to call a funeral home directly and ask for pricing plans, as each step of the process, from picking the type of funeral, viewings, memorial services and other parts of a traditional funeral will have multiple options ranging in price.

If you’re feeling pressured to commit to a plan straight away, that is a clear sign you will want to choose a different home. Even within the timeframe of 72 hours to move the body, you will have a few days to prepare yourself and process your grief before making a decision.

Life Insurance 

A little more than half of Americans hold life insurance policies, according to available statistics. If your loved one had you named as a beneficiary on their policy, it can be an invaluable resource to help cover the costs associated with death. If you know you are a beneficiary of a life insurance policy, the first thing you’ll need is a death certificate, which is a straightforward process.

There are readily available guides online to show you how to access a death certificate in every state. You will have to pay a nominal fee that doesn’t cost more than $15 depending on the state, and, usually, it’s much less. Once you have a death certificate, you can begin the process of accessing a life insurance policy by calling the insurance company and speaking with an agent.

If you’re not sure if your loved one had life insurance, it’s worth looking into. Millions of dollars in life insurance policies go unclaimed every year from people being unaware a loved one had a policy. If you can’t find any definitive information or receipts of payment, online services exist to help you find a policy, such as the one provided by the National Association of Insurance Commissions.

Funeral Services

Once your loved one has been taken to a funeral home and you’ve had a few days to process, the funeral home director will set up a meeting with you to discuss how you and your family want to proceed. If your loved one passed away suddenly, then it is likely that you will have to decide the best way to honor their memory.

The first thing you should know is that the traditional burial and funeral service, complete with a viewing and casket, are among the most expensive options. These costs can be offset, as the funeral home will take you through each step and you can choose, for example, a less expensive coffin over a casket or a shorter viewing.

Cremation, an increasingly popular alternative to burial, is far less expensive. Direct cremation, which is cremating the body without ceremony or viewing, is the least expensive of all, usually costing less than $1,100.

Other, less traditional methods of burial are also available. There has been a rising trend in what are known as natural, or green, burials. The body is not embalmed and allowed to decompose naturally in biodegradable caskets or shrouds, usually with a memorial tree planted in their honor. This is a time sensitive ceremony but does cost less than a traditional burial, usually costing between $2,000 and $4,000. The service also allows more personalization and involvement from loved ones as part of the grieving process.

Burials at sea have also grown in popularity, a process that can also involve a lot of customization and personalization. The price varies between as little as $200 for an unattended burial service to $2000 for an attended service at sea. This type of burial can also be done in addition with cremation.

No matter what you decide to do with the remains of your loved one, memorials and viewings can lead to additional costs, but you can find help. If your loved one or family are religious, your local church, synagogue or temple can help with a more affordable service.

Above all else, remember that a tragedy like this can bring the best out of the people around you. If the best way to honor your loved one is through a small, private gathering where friends and family come together, don’t feel pressured to do more than that.

Canceling Accounts

It’s an increasingly common problem in today’s world that sometimes we forget what online services or subscriptions we may be paying towards. Most of us have big online footprints; credit cards, accounts, online game profiles or streaming services all need to be closed. Especially if your loved one didn’t share their passwords with you, this can seem like a daunting headache of a task.

You may need to spend a couple of hours to a full day on the phone, but having the death certificate on hand will make this process much easier. If any service or company is proving difficult to deal with, there are step-by-step guides available on to show you how to close accounts on over 230 of the most popular online services and companies.

How to Process Your Grief

It is a common saying that there is no wrong way to grieve. All of us will need to find our own way to come to terms that we have lost someone, but it can help to know that there are options that will not add to any financial burden left in the aftermath.

Griefshare is one such service, partnering with churches across the country to offer grief counseling. Usually they will offer it for free or at most a nominal fee of $20. While they are non-denominational and are welcoming to people of all faiths or no faith, it is important to note that they are based in Christian teachings.

There are many other resources for grief therapy that can be affordable. A good place to start is the funeral home you have chosen, as they will either offer their own service or have a list of available local services. These can be in the form of one-on-one sessions or group meetings, with group meetings being less expensive than personal sessions.

There are also lists of specialized therapy services, such as those related to the loss of a spouse or sibling. If you are eligible for Medicare, the cost of any grief therapy session can be covered as a mental health treatment.

The last thing to remember is that how you choose to mourn your loved one and how you grieve when they are gone is not going to perfectly match up with anyone else’s process. Mourning and honoring the life of a loved one is a complicated process, and taking it one step at a time will give you peace of mind and help you make the best choice for yourself and the loved ones still with you.

William Fewox has worked as a freelance writer since 2017, and his work is featured in literary magazines such as The Aquarian, The Navigator and The Historian. He has also self-published a handful of novels. He has worked as a Social Studies teacher and research assistant in local Florida museums and more recently has worked as an editor for a start-up publishing company. William holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Jacksonville University.