What Happens When a US Citizen Dies Abroad?
Losing a loved one is a tragic experience, but when an American citizen dies in another country, the situation becomes even more complicated. From working with local officials and US consular agents to obtain a death certificate to make the final arrangements, Funeralocity has provided a simple guide to help you understand what to do when a US citizen dies abroad.
Local Laws Come First
Millions of American citizens travel around the world, but less than 1,000 have died on average each year outside the United States in the past few years.
When a US citizen dies abroad, the laws of that foreign country apply accordingly. This means that the next of kin – as well as the US embassy/consulate officers – must follow the foreign country’s rules regarding disposition of remains and the preparation of funeral or cremation documents.
Most deaths are due to motor vehicle accidents and local authorities are responsible for investigating these matters. US Consulate officials cannot intervene in these investigations but they do provide other assistance.
How Does US Government Help?
The U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs provides assistance to family and friends of American citizens who die abroad in various ways. When consulate officials are informed of a US citizen’s death, they attempt to locate and notify the next of kin as soon as possible. They also help the family navigate local laws, obtain the deceased’s remains and personal effects, and complete the required death forms.
You can find the contact information for all US embassies, consulates, and diplomatic missions on these websites.
Prepare Required Documents
Upon receipt of the foreign death certificate, the US Embassy or Consulate issues a Consular Report of Death of a US Citizen Abroad. This administrative document provides essential details about the death and disposition of the deceased’s remains, and can be used for insurance and/or legal purposes in the US.
The Consular Office can send up to 20 certified copies of the Report of Death to the deceased’s family or legal representative at no charge (additional copies costs $50). To request a copy, call the Passport Vital Records Section office at (202) 485-8300.
The issuance of the foreign death certificate can take weeks or even months (depending on the circumstances of the deceased’s passing), and the Consular Report of Death cannot be finalized until the death certificate is completed. This can quickly add extra costs to funeral expenses.
Return A Loved One’s Remains
Consular officials offer guidance on how to ship a body overseas or make funeral/cremation arrangements in the foreign country (as per the family’s wishes). The Dept. of State does not provide financial assistance to return the deceased’s remains to the United States, but they can help guide families through this process.
Before a loved one’s remains can be returned to the US, several documents need to be finalized. These documents include the consular mortuary certificate, affidavit of the local funeral/cremation provider, and transportation permit/bill of lading. The mortuary certificates and transit permits are required for US Customs clearance and to clarify whether the deceased’s remains have been embalmed/preserved.
If the body is not embalmed, the consulate officer must alert US Customs and the US Public Health Service in advance. If cremated ashes are being shipped to the family, the cremation urn may be inspected upon entry.
Transporting Human Remains
Flying a loved one’s body home can be expensive, with costs starting at $1,000 and increasing with travel distance, total weight, and mode of transportation. Most airlines transport human remains but you must make arrangements with a designated “known shipper” that’s approved by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Most funeral homes are “known shippers” and can take care of the body transport details by providing a casket or other container for shipment.
What If There Is No Next-of-Kin?
If the US citizen was traveling or living abroad alone – and did not have any next-of-kin or a legal representative – consulate officials are responsible for the deceased’s personal effects and documents. The US embassy prepares an inventory of personal items and makes arrangements for the disposition of remains per the request of an executor (as named in a will) or remaining family members in the United States.
Plan in Advance
Making advance funeral arrangements and sharing these plans with family members and close friends can help to alleviate unnecessary stress – even if your loved one dies abroad. Discover everything you need to know about pre-planning a funeral.Back to Knowledge Center