When their final days were in elder care

8 min read

Tips for dealing with the elder care facility

  • The staff is experienced at this kind of thing and will be a lot of help to you at this time.

  • In most cases, if your loved one died at the facility, you will have to find a funeral home immediately.

  • If your loved one died in a hospital, make sure to inform the facility immediately to avoid further charges.

  • Any final bills from the facility should not be paid yet, as they become part of the estate and will be paid in probate.

Receiving a call from an elder care facility saying your loved one has passed away was probably a moment you were both dreading and preparing for. But knowing it was coming doesn’t make the grief any easier. And even though you’ll be dealing with professionals for the next few steps of the process, you might be searching for an understanding of what will happen over the next few weeks or months. 

When someone spends their final days at a nursing home or an assisted living facility, the administration will typically have a process for dealing with the death of one of their residents. Because of the nature of their business, the employees will be well-versed in your emotional needs as you move through the early stages of your grief, and will be patient with you and your family as you sort through responsibilities and paperwork.

Nevertheless, knowing what to expect can alleviate some of the pressure on everyone involved and save you some surprises down the road. 

If your loved one passed away at the facility

Your pain and loss may have you feeling very alone right now. And it is true that everyone experiences grief differently. But the staff at an elder care facility has most likely dealt with families just like yours many times—and their expertise can be of assistance to you.

Once your loved one’s passing has been confirmed, usually by their doctor or a doctor on call, staff will notify the next of kin (if they are not already there) and typically begin the initial steps of issuing the death certificate. Depending on the facility and the time of death, the staff might clean your loved one's body and remove any medical equipment from their room before the family arrives. 

It’s most facilities’ standard practice (and is legally required in most cases) that your loved one be removed immediately—which will require you to find a funeral home rather quickly. If you do not have a funeral home in mind, the facility staff will be able to provide you with a list of them in the area. 

Make sure you take any personal valuables your loved one may have had on them, like a wallet or pocketbook, IDs, jewelry, or a watch, with you when you leave the facility. The staff may have already secured these items for you.

Once your loved one has been transferred to a funeral home, the funeral director will obtain copies of the death certificate, and you’ll be able to ask the elder care facility for any final bills or outstanding charges. Depending on the kind of residential agreement your loved one had, you should also ask for a copy of their contract, lease, or deed, and for an explanation of the applicable move-out or transferral policies.

No matter what bills you receive at this time, do not pay any of these immediately; they will count as debts of the estate and will be paid during the probate process.

You’ll also want to notify any other institutions that were involved in your loved one’s health, such as medical and life insurance.

Finally, you can also recover any other belongings left at the facility. Depending on the time frame for moving out of the space, you may need to clean out their apartment or room. Sometimes the staff takes care of that for you and you’ll receive boxes or bags with their things. 

If your loved one passed away at a hospital 

These days, it’s much less common for a long-term patient to pass away at an assisted care facility. Staff is trained to notice signs that your loved one might be nearing their time and will usually get them into the care of a physician or hospital.

In this case, your steps with the facility are largely the same: Ask for a final bill and relevant housing documents, gather your loved one’s belongings if necessary, and take care of any outstanding charges later during the probate process. 

However, you will first have to take the extra step of letting the facility know not to expect your loved one to return. This might not be top of mind while you’re grieving, but it’s important, because any extra days that your loved one has a space at the facility could mean added charges to their overall final bill. 

Dealing with your loved one’s living space

What happens with the apartment or room your loved one lived in at the elder care facility, as well as the time frame for moving out their belongings, will primarily depend on what kind of arrangement they had with the facility for the space.

In some cases, your loved one will have had a contract with the facility and occupied a room there, much like a long-term stay in a hospital room. This may particularly be the case in elder care facilities that combine several different kinds of residency, such as independent assisted living, skilled nursing, memory care units, etc., and move residents from one to another as their needs change.

If this was your loved one’s situation, the facility will inform you of your rights and responsibilities at the end of their contract. If you have or can find a copy of your loved one's paperwork among their things, it's always good to verify the terms. The contract will usually have a “residence agreement” as part of it, which will lay out what you need to know.

Leases at assisted living facilities generally allow for ending the lease after someone passes away, but often need to be given as much as 30 days’ notice.

Generally there will be some fees associated with the end of the contract, and the estate may be required to pay through the end of a certain period. You may also need to move your loved one's things out of the facility to officially terminate the contract. Make sure you understand the estate's responsibilities and how urgent the move-out is.

In other cases, residents in elder care facilities rent their apartments from the facility. Instead of a residence agreement, in addition to or alongside their contract with the facility for care and services, they will have a lease for the apartment. The facility (or an affiliated company), was your loved one's landlord, and you will have to approach them as you would any other landlord to discuss the terms of the lease and moving out.

Again, it will be easiest if you find your loved one’s copy of their lease so you can see the terms. Leases at assisted living facilities generally allow for ending the lease after someone passes away, but often need to be given as much as 30 days’ notice. You may be able to work out an arrangement with the staff at the facility, but if the terms of the lease are clear, be prepared for the estate to end up paying for an empty room for as long as a month. On the bright side, you will have until the end of the lease to move your loved one's belongings out of the space.

Be aware that even though the rent is being paid by the estate, nobody can stay overnight in the apartment who had not already been living there, unless the facility expressly allows it.

Finally, there are some residents of elder care facilities who own their rooms. The apartment was their property, and it is now an asset belonging to your loved one’s estate. Your loved one may have planned for this and arranged for the property to pass directly to a new owner through a trust or a joint ownership agreement. Otherwise it will enter probate and be passed along according to the instructions in their will or to state law if there is no will.

As with any other property that becomes part of an estate, the apartment will be maintained by the executor or administrator until it can either be sold or passed on to its new owners. However, as it is an assisted living facility, the building will have strict rules for who can live there, and in many cases will be structured as a co-op for this reason. Finding the relevant paperwork will be a necessary step in determining how the residence can be sold or passed on.

In general, unless your loved one left their apartment to someone else in need of elder care housing, the estate or the beneficiaries will choose to sell the property. Typically the facility will work with you to find a suitable buyer, or even take the process out of your hands if the estate agrees. You will be able to move your loved one’s belongings out at any time until the space needs to be cleaned and staged for sale.

What to expect in the next few months 

As noted above, while you want to ask for the final bill for the charges, you will generally not be paying them out of your pocket. Any outstanding debts your loved one owed, including these bills, will be assessed as part of their final estate’s gross value. The executor of the estate will eventually be in charge of gathering both the assets and debts, and then distributing or paying them, respectively. 

In the order of what needs to be paid, medical bills are a higher-priority debts—and elder care facilities fall into that category. If you receive any bills, calls, or other contact from creditors in the time frame allotted by the state, you should direct them to the executor. If you are the executor, you’ll need to inform them that these debts will be paid as part of probate, and add them to the probate calculation.

It’s never easy to deal with the administrative elements of the death of someone you love. When you handle them in a timely manner, however, you can focus your energy on your mourning and your family. Remember, if you have questions about the procedures, the staff at the elder care facility is typically happy to help help you get the answers you need.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.