When Someone Dies
It is never easy to know exactly what to do after someone dies, even if it is not the first time that you have been in this situation. We have put this information together as an overview of what happens after someone dies and the steps you will need to take to deal with the practical, legal and financial issues.
It’s impossible to know how you will react to the death of someone you care about, even when you know it’s going to happen. You may go into shock or cry. You may carry on as though nothing has happened – or try to do so. You may go through many different feelings and emotions after the person has died, even in the first few minutes and hours. There’s no right or wrong way to feel or react. If you’re alone at this time, you may want to ask family and friends, or a faith leader to come and support you.
Care of the person who has died: what happens immediately?
If the person died in hospital:
The hospital staff will contact the next of kin to formally identify the person. The next of kin may also need to give permission for a hospital post-mortem examination if the cause of the death needs to be confirmed; however, a coroner’s post-mortem examination may be carried out without consent (see later section on The Coroner). If the person who has died had registered for organ or tissue donation and they are eligible, the transplant coordinator at the hospital will talk to you as the organs and tissues for transplantation have to be removed very soon after death. Nurses will normally care for the person who has died by carrying out any necessary tasks such as washing or dressing them, although you should be allowed to help with this if you wish. The hospital mortuary will care for the person who died by keeping them very cold. If a post-mortem examination is to be carried out, this is carried out in the mortuary by specialist doctors called pathologists. Unless the mortuary is asked to care for someone for an extended period of time, there is normally no charge.
The body of the person who has died will be kept in the mortuary until you (or another appointed person) arrange for the funeral directors, family or whoever you chose to collect it. If you choose to use the services of a funeral director, they will normally take the body to their chapel of rest until the funeral takes place. If the person who has died has left directions as to their care you may wish to take them into account. Many hospitals have bereavement staff who coordinate the issue of documentation and explain the procedures to you. In other places this may be done by the ward staff. Sometimes after a death in hospital, it can take a little time to prepare the documents as they can only be completed by medical staff who were directly involved in the care of the patient whilst they were alive.
Staff in the hospital will keep safe any possessions that the person who has died had in hospital, until the person administering the estate arranges for them to be collected. Most hospitals operate appointment systems for collecting documents and belongings of patients who have died. They will issue a receipt when the possessions are collected. A doctor at the hospital will give you a medical certificate that shows the cause of death. If the person who has died is to be cremated, let the doctor know. Once the medical certificate has been issued to you, you can register the death. You must register the death within five days (8 days in Scotland).
If the person died in a care home or hospice:
If the person died in a care home, you may be asked to remove the body quite quickly after death has been verified. If they died in a hospice you will normally have much more time to spend with them before you need to arrange for the removal of the body. Hospices have their own arrangements for verifying and certifying a death. They’ll issue the medical certificate of cause of death and give you information about registering the death. A member of staff will offer you advice about contacting a funeral director, or what to do next if you don’t plan to use a funeral director.
If the person died at home:
If the person died at home, a doctor or other healthcare professional will need to verify the death. They do this by making certain checks to be sure that the person has died. It’s best not to move the body from the home before this has taken place. Usually, verification of death will be completed by the person’s regular GP. After the death you will need to call the GP’s surgery, who will make arrangements for someone to visit to verify the death and help you. If the person died between the hours of 6.30pm and 8am, on weekdays and anytime over weekends or bank holidays, call your GP practice and you’ll be given a number to phone for an out-of-hours doctor. Any equipment, such as a syringe driver, should be left in place until an appropriate healthcare professional has properly recorded that death has taken place. This is known as formal verification of death. If you and your family are at home when someone dies, you may find that when you call the GP they’ll ask what time they died.
If the death took place at home and was expected and the doctor who looked after your loved one is able to write a certificate giving the cause of death, you may start to make funeral arrangements or contact a funeral director when you feel ready to do so. Funeral directors provide a 24-hour service but if you prefer, you can spend some time with your loved one at home before the funeral director removes their body.
If someone dies in a public place or has died at home and the cause of death is not clear or is not ‘natural’, the police will arrange for a funeral director acting on behalf of the coroner (see section on The Coroner) to remove the person. They will be taken to the local public mortuary. In some places the main hospital provides a public mortuary service.
If someone dies away from home, the authorities in that area complete the initial formalities. If the body is to be returned home for the funeral, then the funeral director can deal with all the necessary arrangements, including transportation of the deceased. If a person dies abroad the funeral director will advise on what options are available.
Using the services of a Funeral Director
The funeral director is appointed by you and will be paid by you (or from the estate i.e. money left by the person who has died) and will act on your instructions regarding the care provided for the person who has died as well as making all the arrangements for the funeral. See our section on Practical advice on funeral arrangements
The Medical Certificate of Cause of Death
As well as verifying the death, a registered medical practitioner will need to certify the death. This is usually the person’s regular GP unless they died in hospital or at a hospice. They’ll complete a medical certificate of cause of death if the death was expected and they’re sure it was from natural causes. They’ll also give you a notice to informant, which will be attached to the medical certificate of cause of death. It tells you how to register a death.
Sometimes a GP will verify and certify the death at the same time, but if a district nurse or an out-of-hours doctor verifies the death, you’ll need to get a medical certificate of cause of death from your GP the next day. If the person’s regular GP isn’t available, or if their GP has questions about the death, it may need to be reported to the coroner. In Scotland, each medical certificate of cause of death needs to be independently reviewed by a team of medical reviewers. There is an electronic medical certificate of cause of death form to reduce potential delays in the review process.
A death may also be reported to the coroner if someone died from an industrial disease (an illness they have as a result of their work), like mesothelioma. This may result in an investigation to find out why and when the death occurred. This is called an inquest. Try not to worry if the death is reported. If you have concerns, contact the coroner’s office to find out what will happen next. The medical certificate of cause of death is the document that should be taken to the registrar’s office in the local council where the death occurred. Most register offices ask that you book an appointment in advance, so it’s usually wise to contact them first. If the person died in hospital you may find that you must collect the medical certificate from the bereavement office. The ward staff will explain how to obtain an appointment.
Please be patient if you are told there will be a delay before the certificate is ready. By law, only certain doctors are permitted to complete the certificate and they may be on a rest day after night duty or involved in giving emergency care. The medical certificate is free and will be given to you to enable you to register the death. Do not make an appointment with the registrar until you know when the certificate will be available.
If the cause of death is not known or was not natural, in England the coroner must investigate. In Scotland, this is the duty of the Procurator Fiscal. The two systems are quite different and will be explained to you by the person who refers the death to them, either a doctor or police officer and by the coroner’s officer or procurator fiscal’s office. If a post-mortem examination is needed, the reason will be explained to you. It is almost always possible to see the person who has died at the funeral home after a post-mortem examination has been done.
You will also be told if and when you will be able to register the death and when you may arrange the funeral. It is rare for these procedures to lead to any significant delay to the funeral.
A coroner must hold an inquest if the cause of death is still unknown, or if the person possibly died a violent or unnatural death, or died in prison or police custody. The coroner is responsible for sending the relevant paperwork to the registrar. The death can’t be registered until after the inquest, but the coroner can give you an interim death certificate to prove the person is dead. You can use this to let organisations know of the death and apply for probate. When the inquest is over the coroner will tell the registrar what to put in the register.
Registering the death
The rules for registering the death are quite different in England and Scotland. The best place to find more information is from your funeral director or www.gov.uk where there is a link to find your local registrar of deaths. Type ‘register a death’ into the site search box or ‘register a death in your location’ into your main search engine.
Most deaths are registered by a relative, but the death can be registered by one of the following people:
- Anyone who was present at the death
- A relative who was present during the person’s final period of illness
- A relative living in the register office district where the death took place
- An owner or occupier of the part of the building where the death took place if they were aware of the death
- The person arranging the funeral, but not the funeral director
- An occupier from the hospital or hospice where the death occurred
In Northern Ireland, the death can also be registered by:
- the governor, matron or chief officer of a public building where the death occurred
- a person finding, or a person taking charge of, the body
- the executor or administrator of the person’s estate (this applies in Scotland too)
You must take the medical certificate showing the cause of death with you when you go to register. You should also try to bring the person’s:
- birth certificate
- NHS medical card
- proof of their address, like a utility bill
- a driving licence
- marriage or civil partnership certificate
Don’t worry too much if you can’t find all of these documents – you’ll still be able to register the death without them. The registrar will also want to know:
- the person’s full name (at the time of their death)
- any other names that the person used (e.g. a maiden name)
- their date and place of birth, including the town and county if they were born in the UK, or just the country if they were born abroad
- their last address
- their occupation or last occupation if now retired
- the full name of their husband, wife or civil partner, if they’ve died
- details of any state pension or other state benefits they were receiving
In England and Wales, the registrar will give you two documents:
- A Certificate for Burial and Cremation. This is known as the ‘green form’. This gives permission for the body to be buried or for an application for cremation to be made, and you should give this to the funeral director.
- A Certificate for Registration of Death (form BD8). You’ll need this to deal with the person’s affairs if they were getting a pension or benefits.
In Scotland the registrar will give you:
- A Certificate for Registration of Death (form 14) so the funeral can take place.
- A Registration or Notification of Death (form 334/SI), which you’ll need to deal with the person’s affairs if they were getting a pension or benefits.
You might also be given a document for a service called Tell Us Once (in England, Scotland and Wales). This will forward details of the person who died to all central and local government departments.
In Northern Ireland the registrar will give you:
- A GRO form which gives permission for the funeral to take place
- A Certificate for Registration of Death (form 36/BD8), which you’ll need to deal with the person’s affairs if they were getting a pension or benefits.
After the death has been registered, you can get a death certificate, which is a copy of the entry made in the death register. You’ll probably need a number of copies of the death certificate, for example to give to any insurance, bank or pension company. You may also need to give copies to the executor or administrator who is dealing with the property of the person who’s died. The executor of the will or the registrar should be able to help you work out how many copies you need before you go to the register office. You can get copies of the death certificate from the local register office where the registration took place. It’s best to get them when you register the death as they will be cheaper with a charge of a few pounds per copy. You can also get additional copies from the General Register Office (England and Wales), the General Register Office Northern Ireland or the National Records Scotland.
Documents for the cemetery or crematorium
The funeral home will ensure all the documents needed to arrange a burial or cremation are completed. This includes the authorisation certificate you should have received from the registrar (‘green form’ in England). The funeral director will help with the forms you need to complete and the legal responsibility involved.
In England, if the funeral is to be a cremation the funeral director will obtain certificates from the doctor who completed the medical certificate and an independent doctor. There is a charge for these documents which the funeral director will pay on your behalf. This will appear under ‘Disbursements’ on the funeral home’s invoice and is often described as ‘medical certificates’.
A Funeral Director will also know the correct paperwork if the death happened in one country and the funeral is to be in another country.
Notifying Individuals and Organisations of the Death
You can use the Tell Us Once service to notify government departments at the same time. The service is offered by most local authorities in England, Wales and Scotland, but not in Northern Ireland. If the Tell Us Once service is not offered by your local authority, then you’ll need to notify departments individually.
Stopping Junk Mail
One of the organisations that you may wish to contact in order to stop unwanted mail after the death of someone is the Bereavement Register. By registering with the free service, the names and addresses of the person who has died are removed from mailing lists, stopping most advertising mail within as little as six weeks.
Dealing with Probate and Estate Administration
The first thing to do with regard to dealing with the estate of the person who has died and applying for probate is to find out if they had left a will and where it is located. The will might be at the person’s home, or their solicitor, accountants or bank or in England and Wales at the Principal Registry of the Family Division of the High Court, a District Registry or Probate Sub-Registry for safekeeping, or at the Probate Office in Northern Ireland. The will normally states who is responsible for dealing with the estate. The general term for a person or people who deal with the estate of a deceased person is ‘personal representative’. If there is a will the personal representatives are known as executors, while if there is no will (or if the will did not appoint executors) the personal representatives are called administrators.
The duties of an executor and an administrator are largely the same. If there is no will, the personal representative can normally apply for a grant of representation (which is sometimes known as a ‘grant of probate’, ‘letters of administration’ or ‘letters of administration with a will’) from the Probate Registry. This process is called ‘confirmation’ in Scotland and ‘grant of probate’ in Northern Ireland. The personal representative needs to decide how to go about the probate process and whether to use a professional or undertake the administration themselves. There’s usually nothing complicated about being an executor of a will or administrator of an estate, but it can be time consuming. You can claim any reasonable out of pocket expenses you incur from the estate. You can’t charge for your time, unless the will gives permission for this. You can handle the whole job yourself or you may decide to pass some or all of it to a solicitor. The estate pays the solicitor’s fees.
Your role as executor or administrator is to:
- Trace everything the person who died owned (assets). This may include: bank accounts, savings and investments, property, cars, jewellery, other valuables, furniture, personal possessions, and debts owed to the person who died – for example, overpaid tax
- Trace every debt the person who died had (liabilities). This will include any mortgage, personal loans, credit card balances, unpaid household bills, unpaid income tax and so on
- Create an accounts file for the estate. List all the assets and then take off all the liabilities and reasonable funeral expenses, to work out the total value of the estate
- Complete an inheritance tax form and pay any inheritance tax due. The tax must be paid before probate can be granted. The tax due on property can be paid in instalments
- Apply for probate or letters of administration (called confirmation in Scotland). This is a formal process to recognise the validity of the will (if there is one) and to confirm your power to distribute the estate as directed by the will or the intestacy laws
- Take control of the assets (using the grant of probate or confirmation)
- Pay the debts of the estate. These are normally paid from the estate
- Trace all the people, charities and other organisations that are to inherit (called the beneficiaries) and distribute their inheritances to them in accordance with the will