The First Steps to Take After a Death

Death is a part of life – but for the surviving family it is a time of stress, both emotional coping with loss and knowing what to do to handle the paperwork and the practicalities of what happens when a family member dies.

1 – Call a funeral director and the person’s pastor – These professionals will help with the many choices to be made. Often older people have a prepaid funeral plan or have created burial instructions – look for these directives before making plans. When setting the date for services, keep in mind travel arrangements that close family and friends may need to make.

2 – Contact close friends and family and employers – Speak to key people who can contact others. You may want to change your voice mail or send an e-mail with answers to questions about the details of the memorial services and where a donation in lieu of flowers could be made.

3 – Make burial arrangements – The funeral director can help you with burial arrangements, but note that you will want to check to see if prior arrangements or any special requests have been put in writing by the decedent. Your local VA office or Veterans group may need to be contacted. (See Attachment A. for more VA details)

4 – Write an obituary – You should consider where it should be placed – a local paper, a state publication, newspapers where the person once lived, alumni publications.

5 – Plan a reception – If you are having a gathering to celebrate a life, you may need help with food or a photo display. Delegate to a friend or family member who wants to help as much of the work as practical. There are some details you may want exclusive control over.

6 – Find the original Will – Note only about 30% of the U.S. population has written a Will – there may not be one to find, in which case the law of the state the person lived in when they died will determine who gets what property. If need be, call the decedent’s attorney and local law firms.

7 – Make like an accountant – If you are named as Personal Representative in the Will or you are the surviving spouse, you will need to gather all financial information. First, look to the mail and monthly statements – put each in a separate file compartment so you are aware of the assets. Some people use automatic withdrawals from checking, have payments set up on credit cards, and some get statements intheir e-mail and pay online. Next place, review the tax return – are assets listed you don’t get monthly statements for. Third, keep records of all bills being paid. At the very beginning you may not have access to the decedent’s funds, so one or more people may be making loans to the estate by paying expenses – these should be repaid as soon as the Personal Representative has access to the funds.

8 – Contact the person’s employer or former employer – There may be employer provided death benefits. If the person has retired and gets pension benefits, a former employer should be contacted as well.

9 – Watch the mail – After the initial monthly statements, other asset information may eventually arrive by mail. For assets that only report once a year (life insurance dividends for example), may give statements in early February for income tax return preparation, so you may find additional information then.

10 – Pay the bills – You can call and advise that you don’t have access to the funds if bills will be delayed. This will also usually get any interest charges waived. Keep good copies of all bills paid as these will be reflected on the estate tax returns.

11 – File tax returns – At a minimum, a final income tax return (Form 1044) on the decedent may need to be filed with the IRS and State. Depending on the state your live in, the size of the estate, and who the beneficiaries are, you may also have to file one or more Federal Estate Tax Returns.

12 – Consult an attorney – Especially if this is the first estate you have ever handled. Attorneys that do probate administration can quickly identify potential problems – like time shares out of state, and heirs’ property that may need professional attention. Being a Personal Representative is a temporary job – with all the responsibilities of a real job, but one for which you may have no training. When you partner with a professional, they will help map out the estate administration process and assign responsibilities between the estate attorney and the Personal Representative. The Personal Representative can choose what actions they feel comfortable handling, and delegate the difficult ones to the professionals. These will keep costs down. Stock, business assets and real property may have to be transferred.



Burial Benefits Available from the National Cemetery Administration

Requests for burial in a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) national cemetery cannot be made via the Internet. The VA does not make funeral arrangements or perform cremations. Families should make these arrangements with a funeral provider or cremation office. Any item or service obtained from a funeral home or cremation office will be at the family’s expense.

For Burial in a National Cemetery

Burial benefits available include a gravesite in any of our 131 national cemeteries with available space, opening and closing of the grave, perpetual care, a government headstone or marker, a burial flag, and a Presidential Memorial Certificate, at no cost to the family. Some Veterans may also be eligible for Burial Allowances. Cremated remains are buried or inurned in national cemeteries in the same manner and with the same honors as casketed remains. Burial benefits available for spouses and dependents buried in a national cemetery include burial with the Veteran, perpetual care, and the spouse or dependents name and date of birth and death will be inscribed on the Veteran’s headstone, at no cost to the family. Eligible spouses and dependents may be buried, even if they predecease the Veteran.

For Burial in a Private Cemetery

Burial benefits available for Veterans buried in a private cemetery include a government headstone or marker, a burial flag, and a Presidential Memorial Certificate, at no cost to the family. Some Veterans may also be eligible for Burial Allowances. There are not any benefits available to spouses and dependents buried in a private cemetery. You may want to ask the following questions when preparing for burial in a private cemetery: When responding to an offer of a “free” gravesite for Veterans, ask if there is a requirement to purchase an additional gravesite. If an additional gravesite is required, where will it be located and what is the cost? What type of trust fund does the cemetery have to protect buyers? Ask if there are restrictions on the type of headstone or marker that can be used to mark the grave. Does the cemetery require a special marker base to be purchased prior to ordering a free government marker for a Veteran’s grave?

Is there an additional cost for the placement, setting or care of a free government headstone or marker? Is it more than if a private headstone or marker is purchased?

Is an outside container (usually called a “vault” or “grave liner”) required and how much does it cost?

Know what you are receiving and what is required by the company and have them put it in writing prior to burial. We suggest that if burial will be in a private cemetery and a government headstone or marker will be requested for the Veteran’s grave, that the family complete, in advance, VA Form 40-1330, Application for Standard Government Headstone or Marker for Installation in a Private or State Veterans’ Cemetery and place it with the Veteran’s military discharge papers for use at the time of need. Only an eligible Veteran may receive a government-furnished headstone or marker for placement in a private cemetery. Veteran’s spouses and dependent children are not eligible.

State Veterans Cemeteries

Many states have established state veterans cemeteries. Eligibility is similar to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) national cemeteries, but may include residency requirements. Even though they may have been established or improved with government funds through VA’s State Cemetery Grants Program, state veterans cemeteries are run solely by the states. We cannot answer your questions or comments about any of these state veterans cemeteries. Please contact the specific cemetery for information.

Presidential Memorial Certificates

A Presidential Memorial Certificate (PMC) is an engraved paper certificate, signed by the current President, to honor the memory of honorably discharged deceased Veterans.


This program was initiated in March 1962 by President John F. Kennedy and has been continued by all subsequent Presidents. Statutory authority for the program is Section 112, Title 38, of the United States Code.


The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) administers the PMC program by preparing the certificates which bear the current President’s signature expressing the country’s grateful recognition of the Veteran’s service in the United States Armed Forces.


Eligible recipients include the next of kin and loved ones of honorably discharged deceased Veterans. More than one certificate may be provided.


Eligible recipients, or someone acting on their behalf, may apply for a PMC in person at any VA regional office or by U.S. mail or toll-free fax. Requests cannot be sent via email. Please be sure to enclose a copy of the Veteran’s discharge and death certificate to verify eligibility, as we cannot process any request without proof of honorable military service. Please submit copies only, as we will not return original documents.

If you would like to apply for a Presidential Memorial Certificate, VA Form 40-0247, Application for Presidential Memorial Certificate, Instructions for Ordering a PMC Using our Toll Free Fax Line (800) 455-7143, or if you have already requested one more than sixteen (16) weeks ago and have not received it yet, please call (202) 565-4964 to find out the status of your request. Please do not send a second application unless we request you to do so.

If you have any questions about a certificate you have received, a request you have already sent in, or about the program in general, please use the “Contact Us” link at the top of the page.

Veteran Service Officers and Funeral Homes – If you have questions about the status of a request please contact us at (202) 565-4964. You may also send request for status by email to

We do not administer to other VA programs and we do not have access to military documents or records.

For assistance with other VA benefits or records please use the “Contact Us” link at the top of this page or you can call your closest VA Regional Office at (800) 827-1000.

Burial Flags

A United States flag is provided, at no cost, to drape the casket or accompany the urn of a deceased Veteran who served honorably in the U. S. Armed Forces. It is furnished to honor the memory of a Veteran’s military service to his or her country. VA will furnish a burial flag for memorialization for each other than dishonorable discharged.

• Veteran who served during wartime

• Veteran who died on active duty after May 27, 1941

• Veteran who served after January 31, 1955

• peacetime Veteran who was discharged or released before June 27, 1950

• certain persons who served in the organized military forces of the Commonwealth of the Philippines while in service of the U.S. Armed Forces and who died on or after April 25, 1951

• certain former members of the Selected Reserves

Generally, the flag is given to the next-of-kin, as a keepsake, after its use during the funeral service.

When there is no next-of-kin, VA will furnish the flag to a friend making request for it. For those VA national cemeteries with an Avenue of Flags, families of Veterans buried in these national cemeteries may donate the burial flags of their loved ones to be flown on patriotic holidays.

Generally, the flag is given to the next-of-kin, as a keepsake, after its use during the funeral service. When there is no next-of-kin, VA will furnish the flag to a friend making request for it. For those VA national cemeteries with an Avenue of Flags, families of Veterans buried in these national cemeteries may donate the burial flags of their loved ones to be flown on patriotic holidays.

You may apply for the flag by completing VA Form 21-2008, Application for United States Flag for Burial Purposes. You may get a flag at any VA regional office or U.S. Post Office. Generally, the funeral director will help you obtain the flag.

Headstones and Markers

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) furnishes upon request, at no charge to the applicant, a government headstone or marker for the unmarked grave of any deceased eligible Veteran in any cemetery around the world, regardless of their date of death.

For eligible veterans that died on or after Nov. 1, 1990 and whose grave is marked with a privately purchased headstone, VA may also furnish a headstone or marker to supplement the graves or a Medallion to be affixed to the privately purchased headstone.

Flat markers in granite, marble, and bronze and upright headstones in granite and marble are available.

Bronze niche markers are also available to mark columbaria used for inurnment of cremated remains.

Note: There is no charge for the headstone or marker itself, however arrangements for placing it in a private cemetery are the applicant’s responsibility and all setting fees are at private expense.

Burial Allowances

VA burial allowances are partial reimbursements of an eligible veteran’s burial and funeral costs.

When the cause of death is not service related, the reimbursements are generally described as two payments:

(1) a burial and funeral expense allowance, and (2) a plot or interment allowance.

Service-Related Death

VA will pay up to $2,000 toward burial expenses for deaths on or after September 11, 2001. VA will pay up to $1,500 for deaths prior to September 10, 2001. If the veteran is buried in a VA national cemetery, some or all of the cost of transporting the deceased may be reimbursed.

Nonservice-Related Death

VA will pay up to $300 toward burial and funeral expenses and a $300 plot-interment allowance for deaths on or after December 1, 2001. The plot-interment allowance is $150 for deaths prior to December 1, 2001. If the death happened while the veteran was in a VA hospital or under VA contracted nursing home care, some or all of the costs for transporting the veteran’s remains may be reimbursed.

You can apply by filling out VA Form 21-530, Application for Burial Benefits. You should attach a copy of the veteran’s military discharge document (DD 214 or equivalent), death certificate, funeral and burial bills.

They should show that you have paid them in full. You may download the form at

Burial at Sea

The National Cemetery Administration cannot provide burial at sea.

For More Assistance: If you have any questions about the Burial at Sea program, please contact the United States Navy Mortuary Affairs office toll-free at (866) 787-0081. Or contact the Department of the Navy for information. Active duty members and Veterans buried at sea may be eligible for a government-furnished headstone or marker.


U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

810 Vermont Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20420


Disclaimer:  Information contained in this column is meant to be of general information on frequently asked questions concerning disability, elder law, estate planning and probate law, and does not contain specific legal advice to a client.  No attorney-client relationship is created by reading this column.


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