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What Happens if You Die Abroad: A Guide for Americans

A sober look at how to best handle the logistics of a death while traveling abroad.


Published on December 7th, 2023 in Travel Assistance, Travel Tips

The death of a loved one is never easy, but when it occurs abroad, the challenges can be overwhelming. From navigating unfamiliar legal systems to coordinating transportation, the process can be both emotionally and logistically daunting.

In this guide, we will walk you through the steps to take after an American dies abroad and provide practical advice on handling the repatriation process, legal and financial considerations, and navigating cultural differences. We will also address the question of “What happens if you die abroad?” to help you better understand the complexities involved.

Immediate steps after a death abroad

In the unfortunate event of a death abroad, immediate action should be the first priority when someone dies abroad, especially when a citizen dies abroad. Certain steps should be followed to bring the body back home, treat the deceased’s remains with dignity and respect, while also abiding by local laws and regulations.

Contact local authorities

When you learn of a death, it’s important to promptly alert local authorities like the police or medical professionals. They will assist in acquiring a local death certificate, imperative for the repatriation process and estate matters. Since the procedure for obtaining a death certificate varies by country, reaching out to the U.S. embassy or consulate for help in acquiring death records from local health authorities is highly recommended.

Failure to obtain a death certificate can lead to significant legal and financial difficulties, including the inability to make insurance claims or claims on property with beneficiary designations, such as retirement accounts. Being proactive in securing a death certificate can help avoid such complications.

Notify the embassy or consulate

After reaching out to local authorities, notifying the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate is the next crucial step. They can provide valuable assistance with funeral arrangements, documentation, and other logistics. In the United Kingdom, for example, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office can help with registering a death that occurred abroad. For deaths that occurred on a ship or plane, the British embassy can guide you through the process and coordinate with competent foreign authorities.

Keep in mind that the consulate or embassy, through the assistance of a consular officer overseas, is able to help navigate the complexities of a foreign legal system. Consular affairs assists in providing you with information about local laws and regulations, as well as help you access services and resources needed during this difficult time.

Note: You’re not alone in this! Emergency Assistance Plus (EA+) is a service that can help you shortcut this process. Members can call our team of experts (available 24/7) to handle the entire process for you.

Inform family members

Breaking the news of a death to family members is never easy, especially when it occurs abroad. When breaking the news to family members, here are some tips to follow:

  • Be honest and transparent, using clear and unambiguous language.
  • Anticipate many questions, including those about foreign law and customs, and be prepared to answer them.
  • Convey that grieving and expressing emotions are natural and acceptable responses.
  • Offer reassurance and support during this trying time.

Technology can play a significant role in keeping family members informed and connected during this challenging period. Here are some ways to utilize technology for communication and support:

  • Utilize texts, group messaging apps, voice, and video calls to maintain communication.
  • Access online resources and assistance for questions and services related to the deceased’s passport.
  • Seek emotional support resources, such as the SAMHSA National Helpline and Bereavement Advice, for invaluable help.

Now that you’ve handled the basics, we can look at how to return remains to the U.S.

Repatriation process for deceased Americans

After the initial steps have been taken, it is time to focus on the repatriation process for the deceased American. This process involves working with local and US funeral homes, obtaining all the necessary documentation, and arranging for transportation.

Working with local and U.S. funeral homes

Coordinating arrangements between local and US funeral homes with international repatriation experience is highly important. They can help you navigate the complexities of international regulations, language barriers, and customs, ensuring that the process is as smooth as possible.

The procedure for coordinating arrangements between local and US funeral homes involves:

  • Holding an arrangements conference with the funeral director
  • Selecting the services and merchandise desired

The funeral home will aid in arranging all details, including procuring the necessary permits and death certificates, taking care of and keeping the body, and collaborating with the clergy.

Open communication and cooperation among family members, including the next of kin, are key to ensuring that the chosen arrangements honor the deceased and comfort the living.

Necessary documentation

Securing the necessary documentation forms a key part of the repatriation process. This includes a foreign death certificate, permits, and translations. To obtain a death certificate in a foreign country, contact the vital records office of the state where the death occurred or the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. They can provide assistance in obtaining a Consular Report of Death Abroad (CRDA).

In addition to the death certificate, be prepared to provide additional documentation, such as a physician’s or health officer’s certificate or a burial transit permit, depending on the specific requirements of the country and airline. Always carry copies of these documents and affix them to the container as necessary.

Transportation options

Transporting a deceased loved one back to the United States can be a complex process, but understanding the available transportation options can help ease the burden. Air transportation is the most common method used for repatriation, with commercial airlines handling the transportation of human remains. Be sure to contact the cargo department of the specific airline to make a reservation and clarify any restrictions or requirements they may have.

Alternatively, specialized services exist to repatriate deceased individuals. These companies can handle the logistics of transporting remains internationally, ensuring that all necessary documentation and permits are in order.

Whatever the chosen transportation method, maintaining communication with the airline, local authorities, and funeral homes is vital to ensure a smooth process that honors the deceased’s wishes.

Legal and financial considerations

Dealing with the legal and financial aspects of a death abroad can be challenging. This section discusses the steps involved in settling estate matters and addressing the costs associated with a death abroad.

A grasp of the legal and financial implications can guide you better through this complex process, as you may need to navigate various regulations and requirements.

Settling estate matters

Handling the deceased’s assets, debts, and other estate matters is a crucial part of the process after a death abroad. This may involve:

  • Contacting beneficiaries
  • Assessing the need for probate
  • Filling out the relevant paperwork

Ensuring that the deceased’s possessions, liabilities, and other estate matters comply with both local and US regulations

In some cases, a kin or legal representative or consular officer may assist in arranging for the disposition of the assets. Consulting with professionals knowledgeable in international estate planning and the laws of the specific country is crucial for proper distribution of assets.

Covering costs overseas

Grasping the financial responsibilities tied to a death abroad is key to managing expectations and making informed decisions. The typical costs associated with a death abroad can range from $1,300 to $20,000 or more, depending on factors such as repatriation expenses, funeral costs, and other associated fees.

With an EA+ membership, you won’t have to worry about any costs to return the remains of a loved one home.

Handling cremated remains

If your loved one has been cremated, there are specific guidelines for transporting their cremated remains back to the United States. This section covers the documents required and customs regulations to ensure respectful handling of your loved one’s ashes, in line with international regulations.

Required documents

Transporting cremated remains requires specific documents, including a death certificate, cremation certificate, and customs declaration. A cremation certificate is evidence that the cremation of a deceased individual has occurred and can be obtained from the crematory or funeral home that handled the cremation.

Additionally, you will need to prepare a customs declaration for transporting cremated remains. This typically involves providing a death certificate, a cremation certificate, and a document from the funeral home confirming that the urn contains the cremated ashes of the deceased. It is advisable to carry copies of these documents and affix them to the container as necessary.

Customs requirements

Understanding customs regulations is a critical aspect of transporting cremated remains into the United States. To ensure a smooth process, please follow these guidelines:

  • All human remains imported into the United States must be accompanied by a death certificate.
  • Unless embalmed, the remains must be cremated.
  • The remains must be placed in a leak-proof container.

When passing through customs with cremated remains, it is necessary to comply with airline and customs requirements. Here are some guidelines to follow:

  • Cremated remains must pass through the X-ray screening at the airport.
  • Some airlines may have restrictions on carrying cremated remains in checked bags.

Always verify the specific requirements of the airline and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) before embarking on your journey.

Note: EA+ members can let our team of experts handle this entire process at no extra cost.

Navigating cultural and religious differences

When dealing with a death abroad, awareness and respect for the cultural and religious differences that may arise are crucial. This includes understanding foreign laws while making funeral and repatriation arrangements for those who die abroad.

This section offers guidance on navigating these differences and honoring your loved one’s final wishes.

Respecting foreign laws

Adherence to local laws and regulations is vital when making funeral and repatriation arrangements. Contravening foreign laws can complicate and delay the repatriation process, leading to legal repercussions. It is important to work closely with the U.S. embassy or consulate, as well as local authorities and funeral homes, to ensure compliance with local laws.

By understanding and respecting foreign laws, you can avoid complications and ensure a smoother repatriation process while honoring your loved one’s final wishes. This approach demonstrates your commitment to respecting the cultural, religious, and legal differences of the country where the death occurred and helps avoid unnecessary difficulties.

How to prepare for a death abroad

Dealing with a death abroad is a challenging experience, but by understanding the necessary steps and procedures, you can navigate this difficult time with greater ease. By following the guidelines above, you can ensure that your loved one’s final wishes are honored and provide them with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Help with a death abroad and repatriation of human remains is a service that comes with an EA+ membership, along with many other services. For more information or to enroll in a membership, please visit our website or call: 866-863-4460

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