Dealing with an unexpected death on the road: 6 tips

By | September 20th, 2008

No one expects to come home in a casket.

But more Americans are. The number of claims made on death benefits by On Call International, a travel assistance service in Salem, N.H., has almost doubled in the last three years, rising from 125 claims in 2005 to 247 last year. Its numbers reflect a broader industry trend.

“More people are traveling,” says Jon Ansell, founding president of the US Travel Insurance Association, a trade group. “More people are dying.”

What’s killing them?

Internationally, traffic accidents top the list (about one-third of Americans killed overseas perished in a car wreck) followed by homicide (17 percent), and drowning (13 percent) according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Roughly 6,000 Americans pass away while they’re overseas every year, but that number is believed to be low, since not every American death is reported to the government. By comparison to U.S. injury fatalities (not just travelers), road traffic crashes accounted for 27 percent of deaths, while homicide was at 11 percent and drowning at just 2 percent.

If you pass away while you’re on vacation, your family and loved ones could experience headaches that needlessly compound their grief. There’s extra paperwork, arrangements for the return of your remains, and often, an unplanned stay in a faraway place to bring you back home.

I know about that firsthand because my family recently experienced an unexpected death that involved travel. Here are six strategies for dealing with a death on the road — either yours or a loved one’s:


1. Get insurance.
Having an insurance policy can lessen — but certainly not eliminate — the stress of losing a loved one on vacation. I know that it’s a little macabre, but reviewing the death benefits on your policy is critically important. Make sure there are provisions for emergency assistance, return of remains and coverage for family members who will have to travel to wherever you die to claim your body. The State Department can offer some assistance to your family but they’ll still pay $10,000 or more to get your remains back home if you don’t have insurance coverage. “Coordinating the repatriation of the mortal remains can be complicated and time-consuming,” says Dan McGinnity, a spokesman for AIG Travel Guard.

Related story:   How do I use my travel insurance policy?

2. Tell a friend you’ll be away.
Let a loved one know where you’ll be, and make sure they have all the paperwork necessary to claim your body. Phyllis Zimbler Miller, a novelist from Los Angeles, remembers one of her husband’s clients who passed away in his hotel while traveling to Italy. “It took the hotel days to figure out whom to contact,” she remembers. That prompted Miller’s husband, an attorney who specializes in estate planning, to begin advising his clients to carry information on who should be contacted in case of emergency. Incidentally, she adds, this might be a good time to get all of your paperwork in order. “If you die without appropriate estate planning documents, your heirs are in for a huge mess going through probate hell,” she adds.