What papers do you need when someone dies?

If you are the spouse or executor of the estate of a person who has passed away, there are many documents you will need to work through. What papers do you actually need?

Most will be financial statements, insurance and membership papers, and legal papers that already exist. These you will need to find. Others you will need to create.

Note that in the digital age, some of these affairs can be arranged completely online using digital documents and accounts. Even so, there will still be many copies and forms you will physically need to handle. Here is the list of papers you need when someone dies.

This article is not intended to be legal advice or completely comprehensive; we’re trying to provide helpful information to guide you on your journey through the final arrangements after a loved one’s death.

What about yourself? Are your files all neatly organized, your will up-to-date, and your funeral plans made? This is a great list to work from in order to begin your own legacy folder.

Papers You Need When Someone Dies


Most of the papers you need will be documents that you gather from the decedent’s home or office. These are the sorts of papers kept in a file cabinet, safe, safety deposit box, or desk drawer. Sometimes other family members (spouse, parents, children, etc) will have access, or some important documents may be held by a family lawyer or business partner.

The two papers you will need to obtain, if you are the executor taking care of the estate, are these:

  • Death certificate (2-3 dozen official copies)
  • EIN (Employer Identification Number) for the estate

The death certificate is required by many institutions in order to prove the death so that they can legally distribute the decedent’s assets and benefits. The Social Security Administration, Veteran’s Administration, life insurance policies, and any financial institution will all require a copy. You will need at least one for each institution, which is why the absolute minimum number of copies recommended is generally 10, with most recommendations in the range of 20-30 copies.

You will also likely need an Employer Identification Number (EIN) for the estate. This establishes the decedent’s estate as a legal entity which can then pay for the funeral expenses, settle debts, pay bills like the mortgage and electricity, and of course distribute finances and property to inheritors.

While you do not want to get into who gets what right after the death of a loved one, you will want to speak to your lawyer right away to get the ball rolling. Ask about applying for an EIN as the executor.

The rest of the documents are ones that you will need to find or obtain from their personal effects. Here is what you will likely need to find.


  • Driver’s license
  • Passport
  • Any other relevant photo ID
  • Social Security card
  • Citizenship papers
  • Birth certificate
  • Marriage license
  • Divorce/annulment papers
  • Prenuptial agreements
  • Military service papers
  • Birth and death certificates for other family members

You may or may not need all of these documents, depending on the situation. You will certainly need some identification, so be sure to get the decedent’s wallet or purse, which will most likely have photo ID and other important accounts such as insurance and financial info (see below).


  • Any sort of wishes or plans regarding funerals, memorials, or body disposition
  • Biographical information for obituary and/or eulogy
  • Contact information for family, friends, clergy, business associates, and anyone else who would want to be notified about the death and/or funeral

Check the will for notes regarding their funeral wishes or requests. Other common places to check for memorial plans: in an advance directive or durable healthcare power of attorney document; a legacy drawer, folder, or keepsake box; a digital folder of funeral plans on their computer; a legacy binder or notebook.


  • Last will & testament
  • Revocable living trust
  • Durable power of attorney
  • Living will
  • Durable healthcare power of attorney
  • Organ donation papers

Each of these documents will have very relevant instructions on what you need to do. If the decedent has drawn up any of these papers, you must locate them and follow their instructions as closely as possible. Contact their lawyer, look in the file cabinets and desk drawers, check with close family and friends, and (in case of medical incapacity) talk to their doctor to see if they have discussed any advance directive issues.


  • Bank statements
  • Brokerage account statements
  • Retirement account info (IRA, 401(k), annuity)
  • Pensions
  • Life insurance policy
  • Payable on death accounts
  • Stocks and bonds
  • Income tax returns

Most of these financial papers can be found in a file cabinet. Check the wallet or purse for the most-oft-used accounts, and watch the mail for up to a year afterwards for monthly account statements, bills due, and annual documents.


  • Real estate deeds
  • Time share contracts
  • Mortgage statements
  • Auto/boat titles
  • Storage unit information
  • List of valuables
  • Safety deposit box information
  • Safe combination

If a will has been made and kept relatively up to date, it should list all properties and valuables. Beyond that, property documents are most commonly found in file cabinets. You may also want to search closets for older papers, especially when a property was purchased years previously. You can also contact lawyers, accountants, business partners, and property managers.


  • Mortgage
  • Real estate tax
  • Electricity
  • Gas
  • Water/sewer/garbage
  • Car payments
  • Home security systems
  • Telephone and cable
  • Cell phone
  • Online subscriptions (Netflix, Spotify, etc)
  • Storage unit
  • Post office box
  • Safety deposit box
  • Credit card bills
  • Any outstanding debts

Bills are usually the easiest to locate, as most creditors are quick to notify you of any missed payments. With so many online accounts and automatic withdrawals, you will want to monitor the bank and credit card accounts and cancel auto payments whenever you see one pop up.

Find a much more detailed list of accounts to cancel when a loved one dies here.


  • Corporation, Partnership, or LLC documents
  • Business bank account information
  • List of business assets, including real estate, vehicles, and equipment
  • Contracts, including leases, loans, and employee and business contracts
  • Business licenses (Federal, state, and local information)
  • Business income tax returns

Winding up business affairs can often take the longest time and the most dedicated detective work. Most small business owners, freelancers, and independent professionals are known for haphazard accounting. Start by speaking with the spouse, business partners, close business associates, employees, and accountants.

Printable List

Here is a downloadable and printable list of papers to find when someone dies.

We hope this helps!

One final note – if you are in need of a cremation urn, please visit our retail website at Urns Northwest to find the best memorial urns for your loved one.

Read Next: What You Should Never Do When Someone Dies

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6 thoughts on “What papers do you need when someone dies?”

  1. Of course, an excellent alternative title for this article would be “Important Papers Someone in your Family Needs to be Able to Locate when You Die!” These are all things that shouldn’t be kept secret, and either a family member, a trusted friend, or an impartial attorney needs to HAVE access to them!

  2. Under “Property information” info re a Time Share should definitely be on this list as well.

    Thanks for this information, it’s a great place to get me started. I want my family to have this info now so no one has to go through any unnecessary hassle when taking all this on one day.

  3. 1. Possibly adding a section for military service member families would be a help also, as military paperwork tends to have their own unusual titles that include form numbers. Also their tend to be more papers required due to retirement, VA benefits, specialty pay, cause of death benefits, survival papers, etc.
    2. Some of these may be required for normal civilian death information also, like spouse assumed SSI, Handicap information, nursing home property, etc. They may be included in some other way, but I did not notice them.

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