The death of a loved one can be one of the most disorienting life events. But if the loved one dies while traveling in a foreign country, the emotional and bureaucratic burdens can multiply exponentially.
Contact the United States Bureau of Consular Affairs
If foreign local authorities report a death to a US embassy or consulate, the United States Bureau of Consular Affairs located in that country will attempt to identify and contact the next of kin of the deceased US citizen. In many cases, an individual who dies abroad is traveling with friends or family, who will contact the deceased's family back in the United States. But even if you first learn of your loved one's death through friends and family, you should still contact the Bureau of Consular Affairs in the country where your loved one died. This government division is specifically tasked with helping family members with the following:
- Confirming the death, identity, and the US citizenship of the deceased;
- Locating and notifying the next of kin;
- Coordinating with the deceased's legal representative regarding the handling of the deceased's physical remains and personal effects;
- Providing guidance on safely transferring money to cover hospital, burial, and related costs;
- Assisting with limited legal affairs of the deceased if there is no legal representative in the country;
- Preparing documents for handling and transferring the deceased's physical remains according to any known instructions from the deceased' family or legal representative;
- Preparing and sending signed copies of the Consular Report of Death of a US Citizen Abroad to the next of kin or legal representative for possible use in settling estate matters in the United States; and
- Overseeing the burial or cremation of the deceased's remains and the distribution of the deceased's personal property to those entitled to them, according to the deceased's wishes.
The most up-to-date contact information for the various consulate offices throughout the world can be found at www.travel.state.gov. It should be noted that the US consulate does not provide any financial assistance to families to cover the expenses associated with the death, transportation, or disposition of a US citizen's remains.
Once you have enlisted the help of the US consulate, there are a few things that you should keep in mind.
Obtaining a Death Certificate
It is critical that you obtain a death certificate for your loved one as soon as possible (preferably with the help of the US consulate). Without a death certificate, you will not be able to make important insurance claims or claims on property with beneficiary designations, such as retirement accounts, or file a probate, if necessary. Some countries are better than others with regard to quickly issuing death certificates. Depending upon how developed a country is, you may need to prepare yourself for a significant delay in obtaining an official death certificate.
When a person dies in another country, that person is subject to the laws of that country. Just because the deceased is a US citizen does not mean that the country's laws do not apply. This can be important in circumstances where death resulted from an event caused by the deceased, such as through a car or boating accident. Depending on the nature of the accident, there may be civil liabilities. If such circumstances exist, you should ask the US consulate to refer you to reputable local legal counsel that can represent your loved one's estate in any matters of liability. If they cannot make such a referral, and if your loved one was abroad because of business, your loved one's employer may already have a relationship with legal counsel in the country and may be able to assist in such matters. Contact the human resources department of your loved one's employer to see if they can offer any help.
Your loved one may have also incurred significant hospital expenses. To work with these creditors, it is important that you establish your legal authority. As mentioned previously, the US Consulate should be able to help you obtain a death certificate from the local government or other documentation to allow someone to be appointed as a legal representative of your loved one's estate, at least temporarily, so these matters can be resolved.
Just because you have been appointed as the legal representative of the deceased's estate to wrap up the deceased's final affairs in the country of death, this does not automatically give you the same legal authority over the deceased's affairs back in the United States. A probate matter may have to be opened in the United States, in the county where the deceased had previously resided, to continue the process of settling the deceased's affairs.
Depending upon the circumstances of your loved one's death, there may be a significant delay in returning the remains home from a foreign country. If an investigation by local authorities requires an autopsy or other evidentiary matters, the laws of that country will apply and could cause a delay. Additionally, if your loved one died of an infectious disease while abroad, there may be additional permits that must be obtained from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before you can bring the remains back home. However, once cleared by the appropriate authorities, you can then make arrangements to transport your loved one's remains home. Many countries will require the remains to be embalmed until they can be transported to their final resting place. Other countries may offer cremation and burial options locally should the family choose to forego transporting the remains back home. Again, the US consulate can be very helpful with these types of issues. Do not forget to enlist their help!
Should you choose to bring the remains back home, you can contact the commercial airlines that fly to and from that country to determine what the cost would be. Many airlines offer bereavement fares both for the transportation of a body home and for a family member or friend who is coming in and out of the country to collect those remains and tie up the affairs of the deceased in that country. Do not hesitate to ask the airline if they can offer reduced fares.
Suppose you know that you have legal authority to make decisions about your loved one's burial or cremation. In that case, you should have the documentation proving your legal authority ready when you deal with the US consulate, local authorities, and airlines. Often, such authority is stated in the deceased's will or in a separate document kept in an estate planning binder. If it is in a will, the will may need to go through the probate process in the state in which your loved one resided before it will be acceptable to a foreign authority. A local attorney who practices in probate law can assist you with this.
Advance Planning Considerations
As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you are personally considering travel abroad, you should review your estate planning documents to make sure that your will, revocable living trust, power of attorney, healthcare directives, and other essential documents, like a copy of your passport or other identification papers, are in order and accessible to those who might need to use them should something happen to you while you are traveling.
Additionally, many companies now provide travel insurance that can be purchased at a modest cost, which can provide much-needed resources should a loved one die when traveling abroad. If such insurance has been purchased, copies of the policy should be made available to your next of kin back home. Providing your loved ones with the contact information for those with whom you are traveling, contacts in the foreign country, and even for the local US consulate office can go a long way to helping your family and friends deal with a tragic situation and get the help they need when they need it most.
We Can Help
Before you head off on your next trip, give us a call. We can schedule a time to review your existing estate planning documents, or create a new estate plan, to ensure that you and your family are protected.