As a Cary probate attorney, I’m often asked, “What are the most important steps I need to take after the death of a loved one?”

While there are undoubtedly a ton of things to do in the days and weeks following a loved one’s passing, I like to advise families to start with 8 specific tasks that will help them get a grip on closing out an estate.  These steps will ultimately help to beat overwhelm, avoid oversights and give families the time they need to grieve, instead drowning in paperwork and government red tape:

  1. 1. Secure all property– One of the first things I advise families to do is to secure any property included in your loved one’s estate.  This means immediately removing valuables and locking everything up tight (including garages and sheds!) to keep the property safe from criminals or vandals.  This will also prevent other family members from picking through your loved one’s assets before the proper time.  
  1. Request certified copies of the death certificate- A certified copy of your loved one’s death certificate can typically be ordered from the funeral home or you can apply for one through the Wake County website if the death certificate was filed in a different county, visit the Department of Health & Human Services Vital Records website.  You will need this death certificate to claim social security benefits, transfer property, close out bank accounts and handle any other financial affairs.  During the administration of the estate, several certified copies of the death certificate will be required, thus it is generally easier  to request 10-12 copies from the funeral home up front, rather than have to request additional copies at a later time.
  2. Freeze financial accounts– You’ll want to take an inventory of your loved one’s financial affairs as soon as possible following his or her passing.  Essentially you’ll want to make sure all automatic debits are stopped and a freeze is placed on all bank accounts and credit cards that are not jointly owned.  It’s also a good idea to stop any automatic deposits scheduled to hit the bank account before you officially close it out.
  3. Locate estate planning documents and contact a probate attorney– 99.9 % of the time, families will need to contact an estate planning attorney immediately following the death of a loved one.  That’s because the administration of your loved one’s estate will depend on the legal documents he or she had in place at the time of death.  So for example, if your loved one did not have a will or only had a will in place, you will need an attorney to assist you in filing with the probate court. If your loved one had a trust in place, you may avoid the court process, but will still need to contact an attorney to ensure the trust is administered properly and all expenses of the estate are paid.
  4. Relocate abandoned pets– If a loved one died leaving pets alone in the house, you should immediately take steps to place the animals with another family member, friend or local shelter.  You may also want to contact your loved one’s attorney to find out if they had legal plans in place (such as a pet trust or pet caregiver instructions) to care for their beloved friends upon their passing.
  5. Contact social security– Social security must be notified following the death of a loved one. You should call them at 1-800-772-1213.  Benefits will be stopped upon notification and you can also inquire about surviving benefits for a spouse or child.
  6. Open Benefit Claims– If your loved one had life insurance or was entitled to death benefits from his or her place of employment, union or civic organization, you must contact such organizations in the days and weeks following your loved one’s death to start your claims.  .
  7. Consider long-term care for the surviving spouse–  If your loved one left behind a surviving spouse who is elderly and unable to live alone, consideration should immediately be given to his or her long-term care. This may range from moving in with another relative to hiring round-the-clock in-home health aides.  Nursing home care may also be required in this situation, to which I’d advise you to consult with your estate planning lawyer to discuss potential ways to protect your loved one’s assets before making such a move.

Of course, in addition to taking the steps above, I always welcome you to contact me, your neighborhood Cary probate lawyer for help.  Our estate planning law office in Cary can assist you in working through the legalities of your loved one’s estate and handling any estate administration needs.

Want to learn more? Download our guide, Understanding Estate Administration or call our office at 919-443-3035 for a complimentary case assessment.

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