(CNN) – Coping with the loss of a loved one can be difficult. And, in many cases, dealing with your financial affairs can make it even more difficult.
It is for that reason that many financial experts and lawyers recommend that people get their finances in order before it is too late.
“A little time and effort spent planning now can save your family from a lot of trouble down the road,” said Rachael Burns, a certified financial planner with True Worth Financial Planning.
“Without a plan, your wishes can be misinterpreted, creating a conflict between family members about who is in charge or who receives what assets.”
But if your loved one passes away without a plan in place, these six steps will help you navigate the process smoothly.
1. Seek help
Coping with loss can be stressful and overwhelming. Waves of pain can hit at any moment, making taking care of finances even more challenging.
“You don’t have to do it alone,” said Daniel Kopp, certified financial planner and founder of Wise Stewardship Financial Planning, which specializes in helping widows and widowers.
Consider working with a financial professional, such as a financial advisor or planner, to help you make some of the important or more emotional decisions, such as selling a home or changing jobs. They can also help you navigate things like health and life insurance, taxes, or even come up with a plan on how to better manage your money in the future.
To find someone who can help, start with recommendations from family, friends, or colleagues. You can also use an online advisor search or locate an advisor through professional associations, such as the Financial Planning Association or the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors.
It may also be worth seeking out a grief counselor, who can help you navigate through your feelings and grief.
“Understand that this will be a process to determine what the new normal will look like,” Kopp said.
2. Obtain death certificates
One of the most important documents you will need after the death of a loved one is the death certificate. Death certificates serve as legal proof when you attempt to take control of financial affairs on behalf of a deceased person, such as closing certain financial accounts, transferring property, or applying for insurance benefits.
You can request a death certificate through the funeral home that handles the arrangements or through your state vital records office. Just be sure to request multiple copies.
“All financial institutions will apply for one before processing any application,” Burns said.
3. Notify the institutions
Once you have obtained the death certificate, start notifying the appropriate institutions immediately.
This may include the person’s employer, the Social Security Administration, life insurance companies, banks, or credit bureaus.
4. Identify and gather financial documents
Take the time to locate and gather your family member’s financial documents. Some of the common information you’ll need includes: bank and investment statements, retirement account statements, insurance policies, mortgage and loan statements, utilities, tax returns, and invoices.
“This can be tricky since many returns are submitted electronically,” Burns said.
In this case, you will also want to track passwords or digital accounts when collecting financial or estate planning documents. And be sure to close all appropriate accounts for the deceased, such as bank or securities accounts, and any recurring subscriptions they may have had.
5. Pay off all debts
Debts are generally paid by the estate. But, in some cases, surviving family members may be forced to pay the remaining debts. For example, any loan co-signed with the decedent or a secured debt, such as a mortgage or car loan. Typically, the person inheriting the assets, such as a home or car, will continue to make debt payments or sell those assets to pay off the loan.
On the other hand, unsecured debt, such as credit card debt, can be eliminated. Credit card debt is generally paid by the estate.
“If there is not enough money in the estate to pay off credit cards or other unsecured debt, the family is generally not responsible and creditors are out of luck,” Burns said.
However there are some exceptions.
If you or a family member is a joint account holder or co-signer on a loan or credit, you are still responsible for paying the debt.
No matter the scenario, be sure to do the following: stop using credit cards (if you are an authorized user), notify the credit card companies, and notify the three consumer credit bureaus that your loved one has passed away .
Payment of medical debt or student loans after a person’s death can vary. As with credit card debt, medical debt is paid by the estate. Survivors are generally not liable, but that is ultimately determined by state law and whether the decedent’s estate is insolvent (when the decedent’s debts exceed the total value of the assets). In these cases, the medical debt is usually written off.
As for student loans, it depends on the type of loan. Federal student loans are generally canceled after proof of death is provided. Private student loans depend on the policy of the private lender. In some cases, private student loans are canceled, but if there is a co-signer, that person will be responsible for the remaining payments.
6. Plan ahead
Talking about end-of-life planning can be awkward and a conversation you might be tempted to avoid. But it can also be very valuable.
“Preparing ahead of time can be the final act of love with your loved ones,” Kopp said.