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What Happens If You Die in a Foreign Country?

By Brett Snider, Esq. on June 20, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Worrying about dying in a foreign country is not something that should eat up your free time, but as the family of James Gandolfini learned Wednesday, a death outside the United States can be tricky.

"Sopranos" star Gandolfini died in an Italian hospital following a suspected heart attack, reports Reuters. Gandolfini was 51.

Even a short vacation abroad may leave your family wondering how to handle your funeral, but there are things you can do to prepare.

Americans Die Abroad

Although Americans often feel as if they're invulnerable to harm when they travel, many vacationers will not return home from their trips abroad.

In the last decade more than 8,000 Americans have died overseas due to non-natural causes (e.g., drowning, vehicle accidents, terrorism, etc.), according to the State Department, and many more died from natural causes, like Gandolfini.

The most common non-natural causes for deaths abroad, according to the Center for Disease Control, are, in order of prevalence:

  1. Road accidents,
  2. Homicides,
  3. Drowning, and
  4. Suicide.

After you've died abroad, your loved ones will need to deal with your remains.

Transporting Your Body

If you die in another country, the local authorities will need to identify your body and potentially transport your body back to the United States.

This service usually isn't free. However, by purchasing travel insurance, you may be able to get part or all the cost of flying your body home covered.

Along with travel insurance, you may want to stipulate in your will that your estate is primarily responsible for funeral expenses, including shipping your body back to your family.

Subject to U.S., Local Laws

When you die abroad, your remains are subject to both U.S. laws as well as the local laws where your death occurred.

The State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs will act to assist your loved ones in locating and dispensing with your remains, but U.S. customs may require the body to be embalmed and in a casket for fear of infectious disease.

The U.S. Consulate in the country you died in will also attempt to locate your next of kin to deliver the news and direct legal affairs of the estate, as well as deliver the personal effects found on your body.

Of course this is just a general overview. Some deaths abroad -- like those on cruise ships, for example -- can get complicated. A lawyer experienced in international law will be able to help your grieving relatives deal with your death in a foreign country.

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