What immediate actions do we need to take after a family member dies?

During the first few days after a loved one passes, everything seems to go by very quickly. Your priorities need to be focused on taking care of yourself and your family. The Probate and Estate Administration process can generally wait for a couple of weeks to give you time to mourn and spend time with loved ones. However, there are items that need immediate attention. In times like these, it’s helpful to have a checklist and a notebook. Here’s what’s needed:

1. Determine whether urgent legal action is needed.

In some circumstances, it may be necessary to file an immediate petition with the Court. If any of the following apply, make an appointment with a qualified Probate attorney as soon as possible:

  • Minor children (under age 18) who no longer have a surviving parent or guardian.
  • The deceased owned a business.
  • Anticipating a family dispute over the Estate.
  • Other circumstances that threaten to harm the Estate or other individuals if immediate legal action is not taken.

2. Locate Estate Planning documents.

If you know or suspect that your loved one had a Will and other legal planning done, attempt to locate these documents. Often, these will be stored with “memorial instructions” that explain, for example, what he or she wanted for a funeral and burial or cremation.

The Estate Administration process will be much easier if the original Will can be located. If you cannot locate the original documents, try contacting the attorney the Decedent may have used, as they may have copies of the documents on file.

If there is no Will, someone will need to be appointed by the Court as the Administrator to manage the Estate.

We cover some things to look for in the Will and how to proceed without a Will later in this guide.

3. Make Funeral Arrangements.

If available, use the memorial instructions to guide arrangements for the funeral. Check to see whether there is a pre-paid funeral plan in place—often there will be a small insurance policy for this specific purpose.

Do not use the assets of the Estate (e.g., the Decedent’s credit cards) at this point. If a loved one wishes to cover the costs of the funeral, they will be reimbursed for any out-of-pocket expenses they incur. Otherwise, we recommend asking for an extension on funeral expenses. A letter indicating that there are sufficient funds in the Estate to pay funeral costs may be required. Keep all contracts and receipts from the funeral home.

The funeral director will order death certificates on your behalf. We recommend that you order at least 10 certified death certificates from the county, though you can order more at a later time, if needed.

4. Secure the House and Estate Property.

The home, vehicles, and any other personal property should be secured until the Executor and/or Trustee has been appointed.

  • Arrange for the care of any pets.
  • Store vehicles in the garage, if possible.
  • Consider changing the locks on the home.
  • Take photos of jewelry or other small valuables. Consider locking them in a safe or safe deposit box for the time being.

Do not let family members take any property of the Estate until Probate is opened, the inventory is complete, and the Executor or Administrator has approved the distribution!

5. Begin Collecting Important Documents.

Estate Administration is the process of accounting for the property left after someone passes away and distributing that property to those who are legally entitled to it. To do that, you’ll need a full picture of the Decedent’s financial situation, including all assets and debts. Gather and organize any bank statements, credit card statements, deeds, titles, business documents, and any other financial documents you find or receive in the mail.

6. Begin Making Key Contacts.

Even if you haven’t yet been appointed as executor or trustee, there are a few important contacts that you should make as soon as possible:

  • Social Security Administration: Notify the Social Security Administration of your love one’s passing. Often the funeral home may do this for you, but it is still a good idea to follow up separately to claim the $255 death benefit and any applicable benefits if there is a surviving spouse or dependent children. You can call the Social Security Administration at 1-800-772-1213.
  • If your loved one was a veteran, contact the Veteran’s Administration as soon as possible, as your loved one may be entitled to additional benefits for funeral or burial costs. In some instances, a surviving spouse or dependent children may also be eligible for continuing benefits. You can read more about VA Memorial benefits at https://explore.va.gov/memorial-benefits
  • If your loved one was receiving a pension, call the pension administrator to notify them of your loved one’s passing.

7. Preserve Assets and Keep Accounts Open.

Until the Probate is opened, your primary concerns should be, 1) taking care of yourself, your surviving loved ones, and the Decedent’s memorial instructions; 2) preserving value in the Estate; and 3) keeping your options open to maximize value for the Beneficiaries. Therefore:

  • Don’t close any bank accounts or roll over any IRAs, 401(k)s, or other retirement plans. You may not have authority to do so until the Probate is opened, and there may be opportunities to preserve and protect these assets for Beneficiaries.
  • Do cancel utilities and non-essential services. If no one is living at the home, cancel services such as cable television, internet service, phone service, and any magazine and newspaper subscriptions.
  • Notify the homeowner’s insurance carrier if the home is vacant. A higher premium may be required on homes that will be vacant longer than 60 days, but the alternative is the insurance company may not cover damage incurred if they were not informed the house was vacant.
  • Notify the auto insurance carrier that any vehicles belonging to the Estate will not be driven. This may reduce the premium. However, the policy should not be cancelled until after Probate is opened and the vehicle is sold or distributed.

Do not attempt to use the Decedent’s power of attorney to pay bills or perform any other function. Powers of attorney become void upon the death of the maker. Continuing to use a power of attorney after death could be considered as fraud.

8. Open the Estate with the Court.

In some cases, it may not be necessary to Probate the Estate. However, in most instances, it will be necessary for practical purposes. For example:

  • Unless the property is in a Trust, you cannot change the title to real estate without opening Probate.
  • Often, financial institutions will not discuss details of the deceased’s accounts until an Executor or Administrator has been appointed by the Court.

 

Losing a loved one is hard. The days and weeks after a loss are often fraught with grief, questions, and unfortunately, family complications. It’s a terrible time to try to think through a legal process clearly. It’s often a challenge just to know where to start. Maybe you’re not even sure what questions to ask and whom to ask. How do you know you’re getting good advice and doing it right? You could probably use some help. Our Understanding Estate Administration guide can help. This guide will give you an overview of the probate and estate administration process in plain English. Request your free copy here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jennifer Mercer
Paralegal, Probate and Estate Administration Team Lead