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What to do when someone dies Death in the family, or loved one? Full checklist

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what to do when someone dies

It's tough enough to know what to do when someone dies, whether a loved one or family member - and that's even before bureaucratic and financial issues. This checklist features crucial tips to make things easier.

This guide is to help ease the load after someone's died. If you're planning for the future, see the Death Happens guide for tips to help minimise financial trauma for loved ones.

This is the first incarnation of this guide. Please feed back in the forum discussion.

While every effort's been made to ensure this article's accuracy, it doesn't constitute legal advice tailored to your individual circumstances. If you act on it, you acknowledge that you do so at your own risk. We can't assume responsibility and don't accept liability for any loss which may arise as a result of your reliance upon it. Huge thanks to Withers LLP, Silverman Sherliker LLP, The Natural Death Centre Charity & Age UK.

What to do when someone dies - day one

This guide has been written with English and Welsh law in mind, though much of it will apply to Scotland and NI. See the Scottish Government and NI Direct for more.

Call a doctor and tell their nearest relative

  • If someone's in a life-threatening emergency, call 999 immediately. The St John Ambulance website also has info on what to do if you're with someone who is unconscious and not breathing, including how and when to resuscitate.

When someone dies at home, you should call their GP immediately. If this isn't possible, call an ambulance. If the death was in a hospital or hospice, tell the doctor.

If the death was expected, the doctor should issue a medical certificate with the cause of death. You should also call their nearest relative as soon as possible (if that's not you).

If the death was unexpected

What happens if a post-mortem's needed?

Try to keep calm

Once you've done all you can and are waiting for medical help or family to arrive, try to keep calm. Some find keeping busy with simple practical tasks can help. Call a friend or relative for support, and take things gently. The death of a loved one is a huge trauma that will take its toll, even if you aren't feeling it now.

For support from other forumites who've been through it themselves, see the Death and Grief forum discussion. It's free to join - feel free to share your own thoughts and feelings if it helps.

The shock may also affect your memory down the line, so dig out a notebook and pen. Keep it handy to note down any key info the doctor gives you, or any important details later on.

The body can be kept in a mortuary, at home or elsewhere

Many hospital mortuaries will allow you to keep the body there until the morning of the funeral. If no post-mortem's needed, it can be kept at home, at an undertaker's mortuary, or elsewhere for visitors to pay their respects until the funeral.

If you choose to keep the body at home, your local community nurse or doctor may be able to help with preparing it. You can also contact the Natural Death Centre Charity for advice on how to do this.

If they were religious, it's also worth noting some religions have their own rites. For example, in Judaism the body is never left alone. Contact your local chaplain, rabbi, imam or priest for guidance - they'll have done this many times before.

They were a registered organ donor - do I need to do anything?

Can we donate their body to medical research?

Check their pets are looked after

It's easy to forget about this, but check in case they were the sole owners of any pets at home. If you're unsure, check with close family and friends. Neighbours may be able to help with this too.

Pets can be left to others in a will, but they'll still need to be looked after, even if just until other arrangements can be made. Relatives and friends may be happy to take them in, but if not, contact your local RSPCA branch.

Secure any property and cancel milk or newspapers if they lived alone

If the person lived alone, don't forget to ensure the house is safely locked with all windows closed properly. Sadly, empty houses can be a magnet for burglars, so it's important to check it's secure as soon as you can. Cancel any daily newspaper or milk deliveries - ask a friend or relative to help with this if you don't feel up to it.

Will the deceased's home insurance still cover their property?

Named driver on the deceased's car insurance? Contact the provider ASAP

Don't be afraid to ask for help, or seek grief counselling

When you lose someone close to you, it's likely you'll go through a huge range of emotions, often including shock, pain, and anger. These are all a normal part of the grieving process. Look after yourself - you and your family are most important.

If you're struggling to cope with it all, several places offer grief counselling, which can make a huge difference. Gov.uk has a handy search for bereavement services near you, and charities Samaritans and Cruse Bereavement Care can also help.

The Age UK website also has useful info on where to get extra support after a bereavement. If you've lost a parent, new site My Ageing Parent has tips on helping a bereaved parent to live alone, as well as coping with the bereavement yourself.

Talk to your doctor if you're having trouble sleeping, and accept help where it's offered. One forumite notes:

"As someone who has lost their husband, acknowledge it will be stressful and be kind to yourself. It's a powerful force which can knock you for six. Take things slowly and one day at a time, an hour at a time if you need it."- MrsCautious

The first few days

Share tasks with family and friends

This is a key point to keep in mind throughout the tasks to come. With a funeral to organise, family and friends to tell, and other organisations to notify, make sure you aren't taking on too much at an already stressful time.

Don't feel that you need to sort everything yourself. Share tasks between family and friends if you can. Is there a friend who can sort food for the wake, or a family member who could help phoning relatives? If so, ask if they'd mind lending a hand.

This can be a huge help in taking the pressure off, and the extra hands will help keep costs down. It'll also help others who are grieving feel useful too.

Notify other relatives and friends

picture of flowerBefore you, or anyone else, start tackling the finances of someone who's passed away, there are key practical and emotional steps to take. As well as telling relatives and friends, several other parties will need to be told.

Of course, exactly when you do these is up to you - immediate family will need to know before long-lost cousins. Again, don't feel you have to do it alone. Other relatives or close friends can help here too. Draw up a list of those who need to know, and divide it between you to ensure you don't overlap.

Firstly, wait until you feel strong enough. Then sit down with a cuppa and start working through the checklist.

It's a tough process, so take it gently. Just do as many as you feel you can, and take breaks when you need them. Several organisations will need to be notified too (see more below), but this can come later. The immediate list to tell includes:

  • Other relatives and friends who haven't already been told.
  • Their employer, university or school so they can update their records.
  • Their family doctor so they can update their patient list.
  • Your employer. If a dependant's died, your employer has a legal duty to offer reasonable time off for you to arrange and attend the funeral, often known as compassionate leave. Some may offer more time or paid leave, but that's at their discretion.
  • Who's considered a 'dependant'?

Register the death within five or eight days

You can't finalise the funeral date until this has been done, so it's an important step. You'll usually need to do this within five days in England, Wales and NI, or eight days in Scotland - though this doesn't apply if the death's reported to the coroner.

If you don't feel up to going alone, ask a close friend or family member to come along for support.

To do this, go to the register office for the area where the death happened - use Gov.uk to find it. You may need to book an appointment, so it's worth phoning first.

What documents do you need?

You may be able to notify lots of government organisations in one go

Get any extra death certificate copies when you register

When you register the death, you'll also be able to buy copies of a death certificate. This is an official copy of what's on the death register, often needed as proof by companies and financial institutions, such as banks and insurance firms.

These are generally about £4-£10 each when registering the death, depending on your area. But this goes up to about £7-£15 if you want more copies at a later date, so it's worth buying as many death certificate copies as you'll need now to avoid paying extra down the line.

As this'll be useful for sorting out their financial affairs later, including the will, consider getting several to save you having to wait for the original to be returned each time.

Get extra cash to help - could be £1,000s

what to do when someone dies

Sadly, in many cases (especially if you're self-employed) you'll end up out of pocket if you've had to take time off work due to your spouse's death.

If you're the surviving husband, wife or civil partner, you may be entitled to a Government bereavement allowance and/or bereavement payment to help with costs. If you don't feel up to applying on your own, ask a friend or relative to help.

Am I eligible for the weekly bereavement allowance?

Am I eligible for the one-off bereavement payment?

Gov.uk's Death and Benefits section is also worth a visit to check if you're entitled to any other financial help. For example, you may be able to get Widowed Parent's Allowance if you're widowed below state pension age and have at least one child who is a dependant. Also see our 5-Min Benefits Check Up to see if you're entitled to other help.

By the end of the first week, if you can

Check for a funeral plan

Before you start planning the funeral, check if there's already a financial funeral plan in place. This is where a burial or cremation's already been arranged and paid for. This will be useful as it may cover some of the cost, or they may have even paid the venue ahead of time. Their next of kin's likely to know is there's a funeral plan (if this isn't you).

If you can't find a plan but think they may have made one, sadly there's no central register to check for this. You could check in case a copy has been put with their other financial documents, written into their will (see check for a will below), left with their solicitor or bank, or even check with local funeral directors, or older friends.

Even if they don't have a copy of the funeral plan, just the name of the designated funeral director or funeral planning firm should be enough for you to contact them for more details. To help, you can find a list of most funeral planners and contact details on the Funeral Planning Authority website.

Check for their funeral preferences too

Organising the funeral

Funerals generally take place within the first week or two. So when you feel strong enough, it's worth starting to think about what's needed. A few points to consider:

    picture of funeral flowers
  • Burial or cremation? If the will doesn't state the deceased's wishes, the executor/administrator (see below for info) or nearest relative usually decides if the body will be buried or cremated.
  • Check if any burial rites are needed. If they were religious, contact their local church, mosque, temple or synagogue for guidance.

    They'll often be experienced with any rites needed, and can offer help and support with the funeral, as well as info on whether there's a family burial plot or pre-purchased grave.
  • Ask others to help. Share tasks between family and friends. Is there a family member who can sort food for the wake, or a friend who's handy with flowers? If so, ask for their help to share the load.
  • Donate the flowers. After the funeral, consider donating any flowers to a local organisation, such as a hospice, so others can enjoy them too. Some choose to ask for charitable donations instead - see the Charity Giving guide for help on the best ways to do this.
  • Tips to help if you're doing the flowers yourself

Using a funeral director? Get as many quotes as you can

Funeral directors can provide help with the practical aspects of a funeral. This could include moving and preparing the body, taking care of the paperwork or helping you arrange a service. You don't have to use a funeral director, but if you decide to, get a decent range of quotes if you can, and check exactly what's included.

It's entirely understandable if you don't feel up to doing this at such a difficult time, so ask a close friend or family member to help.

How much do they charge?

If hiring a funeral director, don't assume the dates they're free will match up to the dates your chosen funeral venue is available. Always check before you book.

A final point here - don't be pressured into spending more. Forumites report some funeral directors can suggest costly extras which bump up the price. There's no shame in stating you're on a budget from the outset and asking for a basic funeral. Don't be afraid to say no to pricey add-ons. One forumite reports:

"I asked what the difference was between the funeral at a few thousand and the one at £800, they admitted NONE! Same things, same cars, same people.

We opted for this and it was a lovely and dignified funeral. Don't let yourself be bamboozled into thinking you have to spend thousands at a sad time."

Share your experiences and tips to help others in the Cost of Funerals forum discussion.

Paying for the funeral

A funeral's a huge financial transaction, yet it's entirely understandable many won't be in a fit state to think about cost at such a difficult time. So ask a friend to help with any quotes and getting prices down if you can - show them these tips to help.

The average cost of a funeral is about £3,000. Yet it'll vary depending on the area, any extras, and how much family and friends are able to do.

  • Find the basic fees. Check the funeral and burial or cremation costs in advance, and make sure you know where the money's coming from before you add on any extras. Fees vary depending on your local authority, so use the Gov.uk online search to check near you.

    Sadly some forumites have reported councils can charge extra for 'non-residents', so do check this first. See the Non-Resident Burial discussion.
  • Set a budget. Once you know how much the basics will cost, if you'd like any extras, set a budget for them. Simple, cheaper options (a flower-free ceremony, an eco-friendly funeral, etc) will help.
  • Get a friend to help you haggle. It's entirely understandable many won't be in a fit state to do this, so get a friend to help with any quotes and getting the price down on any extras (eg, flowers, musicians) if you can. See How to Haggle for tips.
  • Get help with funeral costs. These can be covered by the deceased's estate (see pay off debts), existing funeral plans or insurance, or family and friends may want to contribute. Banks can also release money from the deceased's account for funeral bills, even if a grant isn't set up yet (see below).

    If you're on a low income, you may be able to get a payment to help with burial or cremation fees if you've no other way of paying, but you may have to pay some of it back. Apply via the Jobcentre or get a claim form from Gov.uk.

Is cremation cheaper than burial?

Of course, it's a hugely personal choice, but which is the most cost effective depends on where you are, and what options you go for. Don't assume cremation's cheaper - in some areas crematoria fees are greater than burial fees, so check with the local council.

Burial vs cremation - the key costs

Direct cremations can be a less costly alternative

You can transport them yourself if you wish

Though most people tend to use a funeral director to transport the body to the funeral, there's nothing stopping you from doing this yourself if you wish.

There are no restrictions on transporting a body within the UK unless you're crossing the Scottish border - in this case, you'd need to contact the coroner or Procurator Fiscal first. If you're moving the body yourself, it's worth taking the doctor's certificate with you in case it's needed. Rosie Inman-Cook from the Natural Death Centre says:

"Hospitals and nursing homes have no right to stop you from removing a body. Some poorly-trained staff don't know this, and may say only a funeral director can remove it. But the next of kin has a right to do this if they wish."

Check for a will

It's a good idea to start looking for a will in the first week if you can. It may have useful info on their burial or cremation wishes, as well as any details of a funeral plan.

  • The will says who'll deal with their finances. It says who the executor is. This is the person who's responsible for dealing with the estate – the term for all their property, money, debt, businesses, insurance and pensions. It also says who'll get any assets left - more on this below.
  • If there's no will... An administrator is appointed to take the same role, see Gov.uk for more. The closest living relative's expected to take charge in this order:

If there's no will: order of responsibility

If someone dies without making a will, they're said to have died 'intestate'. Without a will, distributing assets is trickier, but there's a system to help. Hopefully, it'll be sorted out among family members, but if not, there are rules on this to help (see assets info).

If you can't find a will, as well as checking with their next of kin, ask their solicitor, if they had one. Otherwise, check with the Principal Probate Registry to see if the will was registered there. If you have a solicitor, it's also worth talking to them for help.

The next few weeks onwards - dealing with the estate

Who sorts out the deceased's finances?

When someone dies, if they had any outstanding debts to settle, or any assets to distribute, someone else will need to take charge.

Banks and other institutions will normally only take instructions from an 'executor' (a person appointed in the will to carry out the deceased's wishes) or 'administrator' (if there's no will, the deceased's next of kin):

administrator and executor help

The executor or administrator is the person authorised to distribute the deceased's assets, so they'll need to sort out their finances. If you're the executor or administrator, you may need to apply for a legal document, known as a grant, to prove this.

What's a grant, and who needs one?

How long do I have to apply?

If inheritance tax is due, at least some of it must be paid before your grant will be issued, then in most cases you've six months to pay it in full (see Inheritance Tax info). Most big banks have arrangements to send cash from the deceased's bank account directly to HMRC to cover this. See HMRC for how to arrange it, plus further help.

Once you've done this you'll have 'obtained probate', the term for when someone successfully applies to deal with the estate.

These processes apply to England and Wales. In Scotland, this is known as 'confirmation' and the process is different. See the Scottish Government or NI Direct for more info.

Tell ALL organisations and close accounts

If you're the executor or administrator, you'll need to sort official affairs, distribute assets, and pay and recover debts. It'll take a bit of organisation, so keep track of who you've told as you go along.

While only an executor or administrator can access sensitive financial info, anyone can help with other administrative tasks. It helps share the load, and keeps other relatives involved too.

  • Institutions to contact. Tell every organisation you can think of that the deceased had a relationship with, including government bodies, financial companies and utilities. This makes sure you fulfil your responsibilities, get back money owed and ensure no more charges are taken.

    We've put together a list of some of the main organisations to contact. They won't all apply to everyone, but they'll help you make a start:
  • Government organisations to contact

    Financial organisations to contact

    Utilities and others to contact

  • Where to check. Go through all paperwork, internet bookmarks and files to find who they have accounts with. They may have had their own financial factsheet with the details to help, so check with their next of kin.
  • Free tool helps find key contact details. To help cancel accounts and memberships, use MSE's Cardsgone.com tool to find the numbers you need. Just pop in all the credit, debit and membership cards they held, and it whizzes up a regularly-updated list of all the numbers you need to call.
  • If you've a second credit card - warning. If you've a second credit card on the deceased's account, it'll be frozen once you've told the bank. If you rely on that card, ask for an account in your name, or see Best Cards for Spending for top deals.

One forumite's tip to help when you're contacting companies:

"Always ask for the 'death department' - most have dedicated advisors when calling about a departed. This is really useful as they treat you sensitively and help you do what needs to be done. Get a name would be my advice."- PennyForThem

Can I cancel mobile and TV contracts?

picture of person with funeral checklist

If the deceased had contracts for subscriptions such as TV, phone and broadband, whether you can cancel any outstanding payments depends on the contract.

Your best bet is to get in touch with the company directly, let them know of the death and ask the company to cancel the contract. Put it in writing if you can.

This won't always work, but it's worth a try. If it accepts this, the contract should simply be cancelled, with nothing further to pay. If not, the remaining payments may need to be taken out of the deceased's estate as a debt, if there's enough left (see pay off debts).

Robin Paul of Withers LLP says: "Whether you can cancel depends on the contract. The legal position is that contracts will carry on against the estate. But in practice, most will cancel if asked (the potential publicity if they didn't would be unattractive if nothing else!) Contact them ASAP, and cancel what can be cancelled.

"Don't forget, the deceased's bank will have cancelled all direct debits and standing orders. So if contracts are to run on, other payment arrangements will have to be made."

What are the providers' policies?

Beware using others' passwords

picture of laptop in chainsEven if you've login details for someone who's passed away, it's likely you'd be in breach of the website's terms by using them, which could get you into trouble legally.

Always go through the proper channels to notify the organisation, and get permission to gain access to online accounts where you need it. It'll take a little more time, but it'll help to avoid future complications.

Get extra help with financial decisions if you need it

Picture of broken pencilThere are several crucial, difficult financial decisions to make after the death of a loved one. Yet it's an emotional time, so don't make snap judgements - wait until you have a clear head.

Remember, you're not alone. Several places offer extra help. If you have a solicitor, use them to help you with big financial decisions.

Otherwise, get help from a friend or relative in the know, or contact the Citizens Advice Bureau. Dedicated grief counselling's also available if you need extra emotional support - see above for more help.

If you're struggling to cope with it all, don't suffer in silence. Gov.uk has a list of useful organisations that can help, including charities Samaritans and Cruse Bereavement Care.

Debts are owed from the deceased's estate - not passed onto family

Picture of ball and chainBefore money, possessions and property can go to inheritors, any debts and tax need to be paid.

Debts will normally need to be paid, but only if the deceased had money left. This includes mortgages, loans, credit and store cards, hire purchase agreements and any other commercial debt.

  • Are outstanding debts passed to family? Importantly, only the deceased's estate is liable for any debts – not their family. If there's only enough to pay some debts, these generally need to be prioritised in this order: secured debts (such as mortgage), then funeral costs, then other debts (including taxes).

    We've simplified this to give you an idea, but the order of payment required under the law is complex,. There are rules on how much everyone should get if there isn't enough to pay all of these. Contact the Citizens Advice Bureau or consult a lawyer.
  • Debts in joint names. The debt will now be the sole responsibility of the surviving person. If you're concerned about the impact this may have, contact the Citizens Advice Bureau or talk to a lawyer. See the Debt Help guide for where to get free one-on-one debt counselling help.
  • Check for insurance. This is well worth investigating in case debts are covered by the deceased's life insurance or payment protection insurance. If so, see how to claim on life insurance below.
  • Mortgages must be paid. This applies even if there's no insurance. In the worst case, you may have to sell the property, but if you're in trouble, contact the lender to discuss options. Also talk to a solicitor or the Citizens Advice Bureau, and see the Debt Help guide for info on free debt counselling help.

Reach an agreement with creditors to avoid future problems

for sale sign

If all the deceased's assets pass to their surviving partner there may be no money left in the estate to pay any debts, which could mean they're written off.

However, creditors can apply for an 'insolvency administration order' within five years of the death. This can legally divide any property or assets that automatically pass to a surviving partner, and force a sale.

So first, try to come to an agreement with lenders, and try to pay them yourself if absolutely necessary. This is a complex issue, so again, discuss it with a solicitor or the Citizens Advice Bureau.

Reclaim any debts owed

Picture of money jar

If the deceased has any commercial debts or cash owed to them, or was in credit on their bills, the executor or administrator needs to recover this money.

This can then be added to the estate, meaning there'll be more available to pay any outstanding debts or go to beneficiaries. Sadly, if there's no written agreement, it may be tough to recover non-commercial debt.

Julia Abrey from Withers LLP says: "How easy (and enforceable) this is depends on what evidence of the debt can be found. If you think the deceased made a loan, but no paperwork comes to light, check their bank statements for large unidentified payments.

"Bear in mind, of course, these may not be loans - they could be gifts, or even money the deceased spent on themselves."

Find lost bank accounts for free

If you can't find all the deceased's bank, building society or savings accounts, or aren't sure how many they had, website My Lost Account can find out where they held an account, though it can take up to three months to trace.

Handily, there are also other sites that can help you trace lost pensions and investments too. See the Reclaim Forgotten Cash guide for a full how-to.

Claim on any life insurance plans

Life insurance (also known as level term life assurance) usually pays a lump sum to the spouse or family after the insured person dies. So if the deceased had a life assurance or mortgage life assurance plan, call the provider to let it know they've passed away, and to start the claims process.

If you've got any info on the policy, make sure it's to hand when you call, as the policy number and details will help to speed up the process. The provider will then let you know what paperwork's needed to formally put in the claim.

I don't have the policy details - help

How long will it take?

Sort out inheritance tax

If you're the executor or administrator, you'll need to sort out any inheritance tax (IHT). This is paid on the estate if, after debts are settled, it's worth more than £325,000 (and there aren't any other exemptions that need to be applied - see HMRC for more).

Anything above this is taxed at 40%, which reduced to 36% if 10% or more of the post-IHT value of the estate was left to charity.

This normally needs to be paid within six months from the end of the month when the person died. You can defer tax and pay in instalments on some types of assets, including land, some shares and the value of any business owned (not the assets).

It's worth noting that if assets are being transferred to a surviving spouse or civil partner, no inheritance tax will normally be charged. The rules on this are complex, see HMRC for help. The Inheritance Tax guide also has useful info on how the system works.

Value the estate

coins picture

Once debts and taxes are paid, you'll need to work out the total value of the deceased's assets, known as their estate.

Bank accounts can be added up relatively easily, but property may need a proper valuation to work out what it's worth. Insurance payouts after death may count as part of the estate, depending on the policy, so factor this in.

Gifts given by the deceased within seven years of their death may need to be taken into account, as well as assets they had an interest in (for example, if they gave property to their kids but lived in it rent-free). See Gov.uk for more on how to do this. Again, this is complex, so get professional advice to ensure you get the right figure.

  • What happens to joint assets? If you hold a joint bank or savings account, or property, with the deceased, if they were your spouse or civil partner it normally passes to the surviving partner and doesn't form part of the estate.

Dealing with property inheritance tax:
Negotiate with creditors to avoid having to sell

inheritance tax

Inheritance tax and property are a slippery pair. This is where problems arise as, unfortunately, in some cases you may be forced to sell the family home.

If it's a joint ownership ('joint tenancy')

If it's a split ownership ('tenancy in common')

If you inherit property but didn't have joint or split ownership

Remember, if debts aren't paid a creditor can force a sale to recover money owed, so try to negotiate with them first.

Note that inheritance tax on a property can be paid in instalments, as the Government recognises it's tricky to raise cash on property quickly. So if you can afford to pay 10% of the tax on the property a year for 10 years, this could be a lifeline to help keep it.

Inheritance tax rules can be very complicated, so you may want to speak to a tax adviser if you can afford it. You can use the Chartered Institute of Taxation's Find a Tax Adviser search. For more help, see the Get free tax help section of MSE's Tax Codes guide, and see Gov.uk for more info.

Share out the remaining assets

Picture of cake

Once you've gone through all of these steps, you'll be pleased to hear there's only one big financial task left to tackle - share out what's left of the estate.

Here, whatever's left once all debts and taxes are paid needs to be distributed. If there's a will, this should be simple as it should state where any remaining assets go.

What if there's no will?

Unmarried partners won't automatically get a share

If you weren't married or in a civil partnership, sadly you won't automatically get a share of the estate. If they hadn't provided for you in another way, you've the option to make a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 in England and Wales.

Other dependants may also be able to claim under this too, see Gov.uk to apply. It's worth seeking legal help if you want to do this, or if any family disputes arise - see the Citizens Advice Bureau for help.

Share your experiences on the forum

Picture of people chatting

The Deaths, Funerals and Probate forum board is a useful resource for sharing your thoughts and getting support from others who've been through this before.

Whether you want help with funeral flowers, probate or the sale of property, the forums are well worth a visit. Plus if you've any tips to pass on, share them in the What to do when someone dies forum discussion.

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