What should we do when an expat dies?

Dealing with the death of an older expat can be tricky business, and it’s something we as a foreign community need to prepare for

Last Sunday, I received a phone call from young North American man who informed me that his housemate, an older man named Christopher Colin Sutherland, had passed away that morning.

Mr. Sutherland, a fellow U.S. citizen, had been suffering from emphysema and other respiratory problems for some time; his friends had been urging him to go see a doctor earlier that week, but he refused.

Mr. Sutherland’s friends had also encouraged him to write a will, but he refused to do that, too.

I was called on the morning of his death because I rented the house to him on behalf of my sister, who was out of the country. Mr. Sutherland’s friends gave money to the police to have his body transported to the morgue in Managua, which is standard procedure (the body waits there until the family or loved ones claim it).

I learned that Mr. Sutherland had a son living in the United States and I was given several contact numbers from his cell phone. Since I have a Vonage phone where I can make unlimited calls to the U.S., I volunteered to try to help and locate the son.

I made perhaps 12 phone calls and was the bearer of bad news to several friends who were saddened to hear of Mr. Sutherland’s passing. But no one was able to locate his son. No one even knew his name. Some folks called me back and wanted to talk about their old friend and learn the circumstances of his death. They all seemed surprised to hear that he was living in Nicaragua (many had trouble pronouncing the name of the country and most had no idea where it is on the map).

Still, Mr. Sutherland had friends who cared about him. I was also in touch with the U.S. Embassy. They were finally able to locate and notify Mr. Sutherland’s son. I felt my job was done.

This is the second time this has happened to me in two months. Another renter, David Johnson, died after being taken to the hospital by an ambulance when he suffered a heart attack. That same day, he demanded to be released from the hospital and taken “home” to my rental house—this after he ripped out all the IVs and other monitors attached to his body.

He died the next day. Mr. Johnson had one friend in the U.S., but no family.

In both instances, I had to deal with the police and make sure funds were provided to transport the body to the morgue. I know at least three other friends of mine here in Granada who have had to deal with similar situations after the death of a friend or foreigner who was renting a house from them.

We as a foreign community here need to think about how to deal with these deaths, which could become increasingly common as older expats move down here in the later stages of their retirement.

Darrell Bushnell, head of Amigos de la Policia, and I met with officials from the police department here in Granada and we have been in touch with the embassy in Managua. We are looking at ways to set up a protocol to handle the deaths of expats here and how to protect any money and belongs they might have so that they get to their next of kin.

The last two deaths that I mentioned were both U.S. veterans, so perhaps the American Legion can participate and help out when the deceased are veterans.

Anyone who has any suggestions or experience with this issue, please share your thoughts with us below this article in the comments box. 


  • Joe G. Jones

    Dear Nancy and Darrell, You are both to be applauded for tackling this problem. I would guess that more situations are going to arise like this and having a protocol with the local police is very important. Thank goodness you two are here and took some responsibility for handling some of the details. When and if you do arrive at a standard procedure with the locals, please let us all know. Also know that we will assist in any way we can in the future. We too, have a free telephone connection to the States and Canada, if needed.

  • http://www.ownnicaraguarealestate.com Michael A. Martinez

    Christopher Colin Sutherland,
    was a good person and an intelligent man and a friend to me. I will miss him greatly. He defended me, when I needed help. God Bless to Chris.

  • Donna Tabor

    It’s important to make sure that your passport can be easily located by someone that you know here. High priority when informing the embassy of the death of an ex pat.

  • Carlos Briones

    Your best guide lies in the U.S. standard procedures when dealing with a dead foreigner. Following release from the medical examiner (in Nicaragua, the morgue), contact the foreigner’s consulate and the consulate will determine the next step. This is their sina qua non. If there is no next of kin, Nicaragua – as the host country – will determine disposition of the body.

    I would guess that some people who chose to live elsewhere, as far from family as possible, are those who contemplate this “what if” scenario. Some may deliberately keep next-of-kin information hidden for various, mostly personal, reasons. As such, to endeavor in searching for the dead’s family may be difficult. Bluntly, some people may want to live and die as quietly as possible – those who don’t, will have readily available contacts.

  • Glenn

    The Bureau of Consular Affairs is the agency that has the responsibility to locate and inform the next-of-kin. This is their responsibility but of course they need all the help they can get.

    The law is pretty clear on the assets of a US citizen who dies abroad.
    A U.S. consular officer overseas has statutory responsibility for the personal estate of an American who dies abroad if the deceased has no legal representative in the country where the death occurred. The consular officer takes possession of personal effects, such as:

    convertible assets
    personal documents and papers.

    The officer prepares an inventory and then carries out instructions from members of the deceased’s family concerning the effects.
    This is not the job or the responsibility of the National Police or any other citizen. That being said I someone want to take the responsibility to watch over the personal effects they are really on their own. I know the intentions are good but it is really taking a risk should there be a claim that something is missing. My advice is to seal the house and post a guard until the proper representative can arrive.

  • Ken

    Actually, I think landlords would be wise to take a more proactive role by asking for contact information for next-of-kin when issuing a lease. My landlord rents to lots of expats and doesn’t do this, yet sure enough some die and it becomes a mess. I asked my landlord to please take down contact information for my kid in the US and she did, but I’m not sure whether that information remains on hand . . . Also, death isn’t the only reason to have contact information, illness can be another one. I’d hate to be in a coma or something without by kid being alerted. Everybody knows her, but unless they have contact information for her, how would they inform her? My thinking is that the most likely person to be dragged into any serious problem I might have is my landlord (if for no other reason than I stop paying rent) so it makes sense for my landlord to have the contact information for my kid, who would handle everything.

  • nicafred

    Re deaths of Americans here-
    1- I urge all vets to join the American Legion (next meeting this wednesday nite at 6:00 Marguaritas pub on the Calzada.) We can assist in funeral arrangenments and death benefits.
    2- If you have minor children with a Nicaraguan national, register the child with the U.S: Embassy and he or she may receive survivors benefits and American citizenship.
    3- Regardless of your assets, make a will (it is not expensive) This elliminates problems for your survivors.
    4- Leave a copy of your passport and special instructions and U.S. contact numbers with a friend, or Commander of the American Legion.

  • nicafred

    Correction- the American Legion meeting will be tomorrow (wednesday) at Marguarita’s pub on the Calzada at NOON- all vets welcome.

  • http://playaroca.com No Basura

    One way to prevent this from even happening is to not rent from you! Just kidding.
    We had a guest want to come back and die here in Nicaragua (Canadian who fell in love with this beautiful pacific coast), his last days were not pleasant, but we adhered to his wishes. But as soon as he passed, knowing he was a gringo, every single person remotely connected to his death came wanting money for this or that. A morgue in Managua drove up to Leon to get his body even though nobody had even given them permission. Talk about ambulance chasers.

  • Rachel Greenwood

    The Embassy probably uses this as a resource, but I’m mentioning it anyway. If the person was a veteran, the Veteran’s Administration should have records of their hometown, family etc. though not necessarily up to date. If he/she served in wartime they may even be entitled to some sort of burial benefits or burial in a military cemetery.

  • http://www.casadelsoul.info Michelle

    It is nice to know people like you are out there trying to do the pro active thing good on you! Sorry I don’t have any info other than the person should take responsibility before coming down to Nicaragua and leave all info with family and in emergency or worse times.

  • Cookie Cardin

    We had an ex-pat guest who knew he was dying of liver cancer. He was diagnosed here in Leon and spent the last weeks with us. His wishes were to be cremated and eventually taken to his family. He had had good medical care from a kind doctor, and during his last day, he was attended to by a forensic medical doctor. Upon his death, the doctor notified the head of Leon forensics, who in turn notified the police. My lawyer was in contact with the mortuary, Monte de los Olivos, in Managua. They were to send a hearse to my property for transport to Managua, but the police and forensics insisted on an autopsy strictly because the man was a foreigner. Although I had all the medical records showing he had terminal liver cancer and his skin was bright yellow, they insisted.
    Forensics was to pick up the body in an ambulance, but instead, arrived with eight people in a short bed pickup truck. When questioned about the vehicle, they said they didn’t have fuel money for the ambulance. Yeah, right. Between all of them they could have come up with C$100 for fuel. (The driver just gave me a blank look when I asked what they would have done had the person been alive and in a serious accident or had been a woman in labor.) After determining his death was natural, they were ready to leave – without the body. They did not have room for the body in the truck and did not even want to touch the body! Ultimately, my employees placed the body on a long board, covered it with a sheet, secured it in the back of MY truck and I drove it to the morgue in Leon. Oddly enough, there were people to unload the body at the morgue.
    I then went to the police to obtain the proper papers for release of the body to the mortuary. The men from Monte de los Olivos were waiting for me outside the police station compound and stayed for the entire night. They were very helpful and kind and spoke at length with the police, but the police would not provide the appropriate papers to release the body to the funeral home.
    My lawyer sent two attorneys to help me. They arrived, complete with a portable typewriter, and proceeded to type out the necessary information the police needed from me – the deceased’s name/passport number/next of kin information, etc. Still, I was denied the release. I asked the police when I could expect the papers and they said they didn’t know. The were appalled when I said I’d return in 3-4 days to see if they had the release. One stated that the body would need to be “prepared” (embalmed) if it sat that long, to which I told them to give me the papers so it wouldn’t need the embalming. Still nothing. I told them the man was dead, he was safe in the morgue, so there was no rush to get the paperwork. They could not understand my lack of urgency even though I had been at the police station from 7 PM until 5 AM the following day.
    With lawyer in tow, I returned to the police later that morning, and still no release. Not a problem. I told them I’d return in a week to see if they had the papers. Again, my remarks were met with dismay. Finally, one of the commissioners issued the magical signature and the body was released. Monte de los Olivos then sent their hearse for the body and returned the body to Managua for the cremation.
    Because I was legally responsible for the body, I was also responsible for obtaining the death certificate and other papers from MINSA. There were no problems with MINSA issuing the appropriate papers, nor was there a problem obtaining the ashes from Monte del Olivos.
    My suggestions:
    Contact your embassy or consulate for information specific to your country.
    Write a will in Spanish as well as an identical will in your native language. Have them prepared with the appropriate and required signatures. Keep the documents secure in a joint safe deposit box at a bank or in a personal safe. Expect to have people coming out of the woodwork stating the deceased promised them money/cars/jewelry/computers/cell phones/interest in a business/property/the house, etc. Often outrageous demands are made. That is one reason to have a properly prepared will that everyone fully understands.
    Write a medical directive, or have an existing one translated and authenticated. Simple is far better than complex.
    Designate a person to be authorized or legally responsible for the body from the moment of death.
    Expect to have an autopsy performed, regardless of the circumstances of death. There may be unique circumstances, such as religious practices, that could circumvent the autopsy requirement.
    Expect delays from the police and don’t capitulate to their needs/wants/desires. After all, dead is dead, and the body is not going anyplace. In the scenario described above, the body was safe in a cooler at the morgue.
    Find a mortuary similar to Monte de los Olivos with kind, caring people. Try to have advance planning and/or a contract with the mortuary in place leading up to the death, if at all possible. Discuss the possibility of the mortuary repatriating the remains or ashes.
    Be sure arrangements are made for the disposition of the remains/cremains. Has a cemetery plot been purchased in Nicaragua? Will the remains/cremains be sent to another country? How will that be handled? Does someone need to travel with the remains/cremains? Who will pay for everything (casket, burial or cremation, transportation, travel companion, etc.) and how will the payment be made? All these should be addressed in a legal document with signatures….. before the need arises. Again, have it prepared in Spanish as well as your native language.