Death: General information 

What should I do if I come across a person who appears to be lifeless or unconscious?  

The very first thing to do in this situation is to ensure your own safety and that of the people around you. This is especially the case if you have come across a vehicle accident or you are in a place where there may be serious health and safety hazards present.

Call 111 for an ambulance and then follow basic First Aid assessment procedures for an unresponsive patient. This may include performing CPR (cardio pulmonary resuscitation). If you need help with this the ambulance service can talk you through the process. St John Ambulance Service has information about what to do when calling for an ambulance.

If you are in a situation where there is absolutely no doubt that the person has died, call 111 straight away, and ask for the police.

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How can I ensure that when I die, my family knows where everything is and who to contact?

When a person dies it can be very difficult for family to locate all the documents needed to settle the deceased’s affairs - such as insurance policies or deeds to the house.

It's a good idea to let your family know where to find important documents just in case something unexpected happens to you. You could arrange to store them with a lawyer, at a secure document storage facility, or in a safe place in the house.

Some of the documents you might wish to make readily available are: 

  • a copy of your will 
  • any instructions about the distribution of personal belongings not covered in the will 
  • your birth certificate 
  • a list, including contact details, of organisations and people to notify if anything happens 
  • instructions on where all your property and investments are and who to contact about them 
  • information about any online accounts you have (e.g. email accounts) which you want shut down when you die
  • details of your insurance policies 
  • important documents such as land titles and mortgage agreements 
  • any other documents that may be important to your family, e.g. the original manuscript of a book you have written 
  • any wishes relating to funeral arrangements:
    • a list of friends you want at the funeral and their contact details 
    • a letter to individuals or a recorded message for the funeral 
    • your wishes for the funeral if they are not detailed in your will

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What are some of the things that need to be done after a family member dies?

A family member or a funeral director needs to register the death, including obtaining a medical certificate or Coroner’s Authorisation (before the body is buried), organise the funeral and notify the other family members and close friends of the deceased.

In some circumstances (e.g. if the death is unexplained, was violent or a suicide) the coroner will investigate the death – more about this is on our Investigating the cause of death page.

If you are the deceased person’s representative (i.e. administrator of the estate or executor of the will) then you will have a number of responsibilities, which may include: 

  • applying to the High Court for probate (permission to deal with the deceased’s assets and liabilities) 
  • checking whether the deceased had funeral insurance, or whether the family can get any financial assistance from ACC, Work and Income, etc. to help pay for the funeral.  
  • notifying the deceased’s employer and checking to see whether they are owed any salary or superannuation from their workplace.  
  • notifying Inland Revenue - you may have to file a tax return up to the date of death. You also need to notify Inland Revenue if the deceased had a student loan, paid or received child support or held a KiwiSaver account. 
  • notifying Work and Income if the deceased was receiving a benefit, or Senior Services if they were receiving NZ Superannuation.
  • notifying the deceased’s bank so they can freeze the bank accounts (until the funds are able to be distributed) and transfer any joint accounts to the surviving joint account holder/s. More about this is on the Banking Ombudsman’s website.
  • contacting the Department of Internal Affairs to have the deceased’s passport cancelled. The passport can be sent to the New Zealand Passport Office in Wellington (or the nearest Internal Affairs office) with a covering note stating the date and place of death. 
  • if the deceased had a life insurance policy, arranging with the insurer for any payment to be made to the appropriate people or person. If they had other insurance policies then those insurance providers need to be notified of the death. 
  • organising for the deceased’s debts to be paid from the estate and for the remainder to be distributed in accordance with the wishes of the deceased
  • if the deceased’s house was registered as a joint family home, the title should at some stage be transferred to the name of the surviving spouse or partner with Land Information New Zealand (LINZ). LINZ recommends that the transfer be carried out by a lawyer.
  • if there are any vehicles which are registered to the deceased, NZ Transport Agency recommends that you have the vehicles temporarily transferred to your name as the registered person so that - until the will is finalised - any further correspondence about the vehicles is directed to you. Do this by completing a Change of registered person form, online or at an agency.

You may be able to apply for bereavement leave from your employer, which will give you some time to get these things done. You can ask a lawyer for help in the above activities; the cost of this help will come out of the estate.

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What happens when a New Zealand resident dies overseas?

If you are travelling overseas and a travelling companion dies, you will need to contact their next of kin (if that is not you) so that the family can make arrangements for the funeral and/or repatriation (bringing home the body or remains). 

The deceased’s family will need to decide:

  • whether to hold the funeral overseas or back in New Zealand;
  • whether the body is to be buried or cremated;
  • whether to repatriate the body (or ashes, if the deceased is cremated overseas).

Repatriation can be organised by an overseas funeral director or a New Zealand one, in consultation with the family. Check whether the deceased’s travel insurance policy covers repatriation in case of death while overseas.

You can contact the nearest New Zealand Embassy or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) for help and advice. They can:  

  • arrange for the deceased’s next of kin to be notified by the New Zealand Police;
  • advise the family on:
    • options for repatriation of the body or ashes, including the likely costs;
    • options for a local funeral (in the country where the death occurred), including whether burial or cremation are possible; and
    • details of local funeral directors who can organise the funeral or arrange for repatriation. 

If you need to find the location of the nearest New Zealand Embassy or Consulate, check the MFAT list of New Zealand Overseas Offices.

The death will need to be registered in the country where it occurred. If the deceased is to be buried overseas, the family may also decide to hold a service in New Zealand.

More information about dealing with travel emergencies is on our Overseas travel pages.

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How do I find out about someone’s death if it hasn’t been advertised in the papers?

In case there’s a possibility that a death notice was published - just not in the paper that you usually read - you can try searching online, using the person’s name and the word “obituary” as your search terms.

If you have the name of the person and the year you think they died, you could apply to Births, Deaths and Marriages for a death certificate.

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If I leave unpaid bills when I die, will my children inherit the debt?

If you have any joint debts e.g. a joint credit card or a joint mortgage, then the other joint owners will be liable for any debt which is under your names.

Your children (or other family) won’t be directly liable for debts which are in your name only.

However, after you die, there is a six month period in which creditors (people to whom you owe money) can make a claim on your estate to recover the money they are owed. Your estate can’t be distributed to the beneficiaries until these claims have been settled. This means that if you leave debts when you die, even if your children aren't personally liable for the debt they may miss out on their inheritance as a result of the debt. 

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Will my spouse be able to access my bank accounts when I die?

Your spouse will be able to access the funds in any joint accounts you have together, but any funds that are in your name only will be frozen as soon as the bank is notified of your death - until the funds are distributed by the person administering your estate.

More information is on the Banking Ombudsman website.