End-of-Life Planning: Preparing When Death Is Near

Thankfully, very few of us have extensive experience observing and caring for someone in their last days. As caregivers, we hope to be prepared for this time and to make these moments as valuable and comfortable as possible for us and our loved ones.

This is the time to gather the family to say final goodbyes to their loved one. They may take turns with the patient, holding hands, talking to the patient, or just sitting quietly. It can also be a time to perform any religious rituals and other activities the patient wants before death. It is a chance for many families and friends to express their love and appreciation for the patient and for each other.

It is important to have a plan for what to do after death, so that the family knows what needs to be done during this very emotional time. If the patient is in hospice, the hospice nurse and social worker will help you. If the patient is not in hospice, talk with the doctor about it so that you will know what to do at the time of death. The American Cancer Society describes many of the typical changes in body function, consciousness, metabolism, etc., that occur as death approaches, and how the caregiver can help. Not all of the symptoms illustrated will happen, but it may help you to know about them.  

Be sure to pay attention to this important note: If you call 911 or emergency medical services (EMS), even after an expected death at home, the law often requires that EMS try to revive the patient or take him or her to a hospital. This can complicate the situation and delay funeral plans. Be sure that family and friends are ready and know exactly whom to call, so that they don't dial 911 in confusion or panic.

Places to notify after a death:

  1. The Social Security Office. The mortuary will notify them, but a family member should call the office at 800-772-1213 within a week or two to verify any changes to benefits. Note: There is a death benefit of $255, but it is paid only if there is a surviving spouse or eligible children, and directly to them.

    Who can get survivor's benefits?
    • Widows and widowers aged 60 or older
    • Widows and widowers at any age if caring for the deceased's children who are under age 16
    • Divorced wives and husbands aged 60 or older, if married to the deceased 10 years or more
    • Widows, widowers, divorced wives, and divorced husbands aged 50 or older, if they are disabled
    • Children up to age 18
    • Children aged 18 or 19, if they attend elementary school or high school full time
    • Children over age 18, if they became disabled before age 22
    • The deceased worker's parents aged 62 or older, if they were being supported by the worker
    If the person dies in the middle of the month, Social Security does not prorate the number a days a person lived in that month, so their whole check may have to be returned.
  2. Banks where accounts are held
  3. Any companies where investments are held
  4. All insurance companies, retirement plans, and fraternal benefit programs
  5. Title companies for property. Be aware that if you want to sell property you will need a copy of the death certificate.
  6. Department of Motor Vehicles to change the name on vehicle titles
  7. Attorney, if probate is necessary
  8. Insurance policies, benefit programs, investments, and bank accounts, to change the beneficiary

You will need a certified copy of the death certificate to file with the income taxes for the year of death, if applicable.