Dealing with a Death in Spain

Every country and culture has its own way of dealing with a death. From the bureaucracy to the ritual and the conventions surrounding bereavement, the process in Spain is likely to be different from what you are used to. Depending upon where you come from, it could be very different indeed.

This guide covers…

This guide is only about the process of dealing with a death in Spain. It covers the steps you need to take locally when somebody dies and any steps you may need to take in your home country.

It describes, in particular, how to deal with a death in the area of Andalusia/Andalucía – which contains the Costa del Sol. See a map here. Please note that certain aspects of the law in Spain vary from one “autonomous community” (comunidad autónomalightbulb image - click here for more information on this subject to another.

This guide does not cover the process of dealing with an inheritance in Spain. See our Guide to Inheritance in Spain for that information.

Introduction

Dealing with the death of a loved one is always stressful and upsetting. It can also be time consuming and expensive. The stress, time factor and expense are often worsened by distance, language and unexpected differences in procedure.

If you’re reading this guide it’s probably too late to say that it’s much better to reduce all of these problems with a bit of forward planning.

This includes thinking about your wishes and speaking to your lawyer and a local funeral director as to what can and cannot be done when you die and the likely costs involved. Doing that and passing the information on to your family or other heirs, probably by way of a letter, may be a little awkward but it can avoid a lot on unnecessary worry and confusion.

If you live in a different country from your mother, father or elderly brother and they haven’y spoken yo you about this, there is nothing wrong with you initiating the conversation. Just be prepared to find reverse gear if it is clear that your relative does not want to talk about these things.

This planning is particularly important for several reasons:

  • Many foreigners still put in their wills or tell their relatives that they wish to be buried “back home”. Many would change their minds if they knew the cost and trouble that this wish causes their loved ones.
  • Planning is also important if you have pets or young children. Immediate decisions need to be made about these, usually within hours of your death.
  • Things move very quickly in Spain. Local people must be buried within three days. Foreigners can request a longer period but delay brings extra cost.
  • Choosing a funeral director in advance and specifying what you want them to do will save lots of trouble later on.

This type of planning is normal in Spain, perhaps because of the short period of time usually found between the death and the funeral.

Finally, in this guide we realise that we use some terms – such as deceased and body – which can sound a little callous. No disrespect is intended but there are few expressions that meet the right balance between practicality, respect and brevity.

Video guide to dealing with a death in Spain

You can get a quick overview of dealing with a death in Spain by watching this video interview (below) with Spanish lawyer Antonio Manzanares. Learn more by scrolling down and reading the detailed guide he has written with us.

Preparation for your own death in Spain

Probably, the most important things to do are:

  1. Consult your lawyer about inheritance planning. See our guide to inheritance planning in Spain.
  2. Choose a funeral director and the type of arrangements you want made when you die: local burial, local cremation or repatriation.
  3. Make arrangements that will make sure that your wife/partner will have access to funds after your death.
  4. Make arrangements for what will happen to any pets.

It is very helpful if your friends and your family also know the whereabouts of certain key documents.

As far as the death itself is concerned, these will include:

  • Your passport
  • Any residence card
  • Any medical insurance policy or card
  • Your social security card
  • The names of both of your parents – even if you’re 90!
  • The contact details of your relatives or other heirs

There are other documents – many documents – that are needed to deal with the inheritance of your assets. See our Guide to Inheritance for details. It is helpful if the documents are all kept together and the whereabouts of the documents is known to a trusted local friend. The best place to put them – or certified copies of them – is usually in folder that should also contain a copy of your Will and a regularly updated list of all your assets.

The location of documents should be known by a local friend because, in many cases, all of your family and other relatives will be living hundreds or thousands of miles away and unable to take action quickly at the time of your death.

Many people are nervous about entrusting information such as this to friends – even friends they have known for a long time. In this case, the best thing to do is usually to tell your lawyer where the documents are stored. You should also give the lawyer the means to get access to them when needed. They will usually be in a drawer at your home. This doesn’t normally involve giving them a key to your house – but more telling them which of your friends and neighbours has the key and giving the lawyer a letter of instruction asking them to assist him and to permit him to remove the documents.

This all sounds very boring but it really can save a huge amount of wasted time and money – as well as a great deal of unnecessary stress.

Action in Spain after a death

Deaths at home

If somebody dies at home the steps to be taken depend upon whether the deceased had received recent medical treatment.

If there has been no recent medical treatment, the police or guardia civil and an ambulance must be called. A doctor will usually also be required to attend.

If a person is found dead after a recent illness, the procedure will be as follows:

  1. Call the doctor
  2. The doctor will attend and examine the body. The death can only be certified by a doctor.
  3. In case of sudden but expected deaths, the doctor will sign a temporary Death Certificate. This is not a Death Certificate. A funeral director will then be called in and remove the body. If you wish to use a particular funeral director, it is better if this is known at this time.
  4. Other sudden deaths require the intervention of the Court’s authorities.
  5. If the doctor suspects that it is not a natural death, he or she will contact the police or Court’s authorities
  6. The doctor will then sign a document stating that he has called the relevant authorities. This is not a Death Certificate.

If the doctor contacts the police, do not be alarmed. It merely means that he cannot be satisfied as to the cause of death from what he has seen and his knowledge of the deceased’s medical condition.

If the doctor notifies the police, they will come to the house. They may call in a member of their forensic team before authorising the removal of the body to the office of the local coroner.

Any postmortem examination is usually done quickly – usually within 24 hours.

Deaths in hospital in Spain

If the death occurs in a hospital then they or the police will notify the next of kin.

Unless there is something suspicious about the death, the relevant certificate will be issued. This is not the death certificate. If the death is suspicious or unexplained, the hospital will contact the police or court’s authorities

Deaths elsewhere in Spain

If the death occurs elsewhere (such as in a road accident or a restaurant), the body will be transferred to a local hospital and the procedure will then be the same as if the deceased died in the hospital.

Identification of the deceased

In Spain it is not normally necessary for the deceased to be identified by the next of kin. Identification can be carried out by means of documentation such as a passport or driving licence, or by fingerprints.

If there is real doubt about the identity of the deceased, a judge may order DNA testing or request information through police channels from abroad. This process could take up to a few months.

Funeral directors in Spain

There are funeral directors throughout Spain. Many, especially in the more popular tourist and expat areas, speak English and/or other foreign languages.

Because of the speed at which things move in Spain, it is very useful to know which funeral director you wish to use as early as possible. If you have not expressed a preference, the people attending the death will nominate one.

Be aware that, when the funeral director removes the body, he will usually require the family or its representative to sign some paperwork. This is often a contract to use their services. It is seldom transparent in that it specifies costs and service levels. It can give the funeral director authority to do a lot without consulting you. It will probably commit you to a place for the funeral. As ever, you should not sign something you don’t understand.

Funerals in Spain

The person in charge of arranging the funeral is usually a relative or a friend or – if all else fails (which it rarely does) – the deceased’s lawyer.

Many Spanish people have insurance to cover the (significant) cost of a funeral.  See below.

The cost involved will vary depending upon where you live and the choices you make. A simple funeral in Almeria will (2018) cost about €3,000: a simple cremation closer to €2,000. In both cases, you can spend a lot more.

The funeral director will need to receive the following documents and information:

  • A copy of the deceased’s passport
  • A copy of the deceased’s residence permit
  • Details of the deceased’s insurance company
  • A copy of the deceased’s social security card
  • The full names of both of the deceased’s parents
  • The deceased’s place and date of birth, marital status and permanent address
  • Contact details for the family

Funerals normally take place quite quickly in Spain: usually on the day following or, at the most, two days after the death.

According to Spanish national law, the deceased must either be (1) preserved (maintained at low
temperature) or (2) embalmed by a funeral director within 48 hours of the death. In the case of foreign
nationals, funeral directors usually choose to embalm the deceased (as opposed to preservation) as this
is a national legal requirement for transferring deceased persons out of Spanish territory. This is usually more expensive.

Questions that will be asked at the funeral directors

The ordinary questions asked after the death will include the following:

  • If not already known, did the deceased wear a pacemaker? This may have already been removed by the attending doctor.
  • What type of coffin do you require?
  • Do you want a burial or cremation?
  • If you want a burial, in which cemetery?
  • If you want a cremation, what do you intend to do with the ashes?
  • Do you wish the deceased to be embalmed or otherwise prepared?
  • Do you wish the deceased to be repatriated (taken to their home country)?
  • Do you wish to take in any special clothes for the deceased to wear?
  • Do you require a religious service and if so of which denomination?
  • Choice of music
  • Whether the body is to be available for viewing prior to the burial or cremation

These are a lot of things that need to be decided quite quickly and it is obviously helpful if the family have thought about these issues in advance and if they and/or the deceased have told the friend what is required.

A few of these points warrant special comment.

In Spain it is normal for people to be buried rather than cremated, although recent years have seen more people being cremated.

Local law requires that, if more than one day is going to pass before the funeral, the body should be embalmed or preserved (for example, refrigerated).

If the deceased is going to be cremated, there are different types of urn depending upon what you want to do with the ashes. If they are to be scattered a different type of urn is used from the one that would be used if the ashes are to be buried. If you want to have the ashes taken “back home” there is another type of urn (more robust and sealed) which is certified for the international transport of ashes.

Be aware that if you want to have the body sent back home then the cost can be very substantial.

Cemeteries in Spain

Spanish cemetary

In Spain, cemeteries belong to the municipality and “burial” is often by placing the coffin in a niche. The appearance is rather like a white-painted filing cabinet.

The niche needs to be purchased (for your indefinite use) or leased (typically for a period of only 5 years) and they can rarely be reserved in advance. It is sometimes possible to buy a niche with sufficient space for a second body.

Crematoriums in Spain

Nearly every cemetery in Spain has a crematorium associated with it. A map showing the location of all the crematoria in Spain can be found here.

The process of cremation may be different from what you are used to.

If you choose cremation and wish to take the ashes back to your own country yourself, you can usually do so with minimal
bureaucracy. However, you should check with the airline about their specific restrictions or requirements. If it is not possible for you to transport the ashes yourself, Spanish funeral directors will be able to arrange the necessary paperwork and transportation.

Death certificates in Spain

The Town Hall will, on production of the certificate you have received from the doctor, issue an official death certificate (certificado de defuncion). If you need more than one certificado de defuncion (and you almost certainly will), copies can be requested.

People who must be informed of a death in Spain

Local people to be informed

  • The death must be registered at the Civil Registry 24 hours after the death.
  • Wills registry (in order to retrieve the official copy of the deceased’s will)
  • The consulate of your country in Spain
  • If the deceased had a Will in Spain, the Notary who it was made in front of
  • If the deceased had life insurance, the beneficiaries and the insurance company (showing the Death Certificate)
  • The Town Hall (so the deceased can be removed from the list of residents)
  • The traffic department (to cancel any driving licence)
  • The president of any apartment building/condominium in which the deceased was resident
  • The deceased’s medical insurance company
  • The deceased’s bank
  • The Spanish tax department
  • The Department of Social Security
  • Any places where the deceased had investments – e.g. shares, insurance policies, bank accounts, investment funds etc

International people to be informed

The international equivalents in the deceased’s home country of all the above agencies and organisations are likely to need copies of the death certificates.

Many countries also require the local consulate to be informed if one of their citizens dies abroad. See below.

It’s also a good idea to keep a copy of the death certificate for yourself.

Action “back home” when someone dies in Spain

Notifying the consulate

The first thing you should do, though it’s not strictly at home, is notify your country’s consulate in Spain about the death.. They will then remove the deceased from the list of nationals who they know to live locally and can be useful in other ways.

In order to do this you will need to have a copy of the local death certificate.

There is no Spanish legal requirement to do this but it might be required by the law of your country.

In fact, the Spanish authorities often notify the relevant Consulate in the area where the person has died. It is still better to do this yourself as well.

Surrendering the passport

In most countries there is a legal requirement that you surrender the deceased’s passport to the local consulate or to the passport office back home.

Banks and investments

Any institutions in which the deceased held money or investments will need to be notified so that the state can get its hands on those assets.

Reporting the death to the coroner “back home”

The requirements here vary from country to country but, in many countries if you repatriate the body or (in some cases) the ashes the coroner back home will have the legal responsibility of “signing off” the death and, if it’s necessary in order to do so, of holding an inquest.

This can sometimes be a drawn out process, partly because your Spanish death certificate does not state the cause of death.

Insurance

Check the deceased’s medical and, if appropriate, travel and insurance policies. You may find that some or all of the costs of dealing with the death are covered by those policies.

As we have already said, many Spanish people and foreigners resident in Spain have insurance policies to cover their funeral expenses. There is some debate as to whether these provide good value.

Wills and inheritance

See our Guide to Inheritance in Spain and our Guide to Wills in Spain.

Conclusion

Dealing with a death is stressful and time consuming. It is unfortunate (but probably human nature) that so few people make the job easier by a little bit of advance planning.

You may also want to read:

Bereavement Information – a guide to dealing with a death in Spain from the British Government.

Spain – Death – a guide to dealing with a death in Spain from ExpatFocus.

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